The symmetry would have been perfect.

Before moving on to the NFL, where he starts for the Washington Commanders, Charlotte-area native Sam Howell chose to play one final game for North Carolina, in his hometown at the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

Two years later, another quarterback from the Queen City headed for the NFL had a chance to end his career with the Tar Heels in the same way.

In the same bowl.

But Drake Maye has decided to take a pass rather than throw a few more passes in Carolina blue.
The record-setting passer announced Monday that he’s opting out of the Tar Heels’ Dec. 28 date with West Virginia at Bank of America Stadium to start preparing for the draft.

It’s hardly a surprise move. Maye is projected as a top-3 pick, maybe even the top overall pick, and the last thing he needs is to risk injury in what amounts to a meaningless exhibition game.

And he’s hardly the only one making such a decision. Even on his own team.

Even without the perfect ending, Maye still shares something in common with his predecessor. For all the individual success they achieved, their time in Chapel Hill was largely wasted from a team perspective.

Yes, Howell got the Tar Heels to the Orange Bowl for the first time in school history at the end of the 2020 season. And Maye did him one better by leading them to a Coastal Division title and a spot in the ACC Championship Game last season.

The payoff, however, was only pennies on the dollar compared to what was there for the taking had the star quarterbacks been surrounded by better complementary talent. Especially on the offensive line.

Howell was sacked 49 times during his final season. And when he wasn’t getting knocked down, he was usually running for his life. The same is true for Maye, who was sacked 70 times in his 2 seasons as a starter. And he also had to try and overcome the double whammy of a historically bad defense.

As much as Maye and Howell were able to accomplish, they could only do so much on their own. The sleeping giant, as UNC’s program is sometimes called, is still snoozing soundly.

But then, save for Clemson, the same can be said for every other ACC program over the past decade.

It’s a conference that loves to tout the volume of quarterback talent it has sent to the next level.
And it is considerable.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was the top overall pick in 2021. Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett was the first passer taken the following year while Duke’s Daniel Jones and Louisville’s Heisman winner Lamar Jackson were also 1st-rounders.

And the list doesn’t end there.

Maye, Howell, Mitchell Trubisky at UNC. Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley at NC State. Sam Hartman at Wake Forest. Riley Leonard at Duke. Bryce Perkins at Virginia.

All of them put up impressive numbers. None of them, other than the Florida State’s Jameis Winston and the Clemson duo of Lawrence and Deshaun Watson even flirted with getting their teams into the College Football Playoff. Let alone winning a national championship.

It’s a legacy of futility that might have taken a turn for the better had Jordan Travis not broken his leg 2 weeks from the end of the regular season.

Travis was a Heisman-caliber talent whose dual-threat skill set, leadership and knack for raising his game whenever his team needed it most. But while he was clearly the engine that drove FSU, it was the playmakers that surrounded him on both sides of the ball that turned the Seminoles into a legitimate national contender.

Even then, his coach Mike Norvell, realized that you can never have too many elite players. So he went out and added one of the nation’s top transfer classes to his team’s arsenal.

It helped FSU go undefeated and win the conference championship.

We’ll never know if that would have been good enough to get the Seminoles into the Playoff had their quarterback stayed healthy.

At least they were in the conversation.

The ACC has a hard enough time being taken seriously between its own administrative missteps and the negative perception it has in the national media compared to that of the SEC and Big Ten.

For it to have any chance of changing that narrative in the short term and in its survival over the long haul, its coaches are going to have to figure out a way to recruit better talent across the board and stop wasting generational quarterback talent such as Howell and Maye.

And whoever comes next.