People ask North Carolina redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye who will be the starter come their Aug. 27 opener against Florida A&M so often that he has a canned answer ready.
Truth is, he doesn’t know yet.
Maye is locked in a battle with sophomore Jacolby Criswell to replace three-year starter Sam Howell, who left UNC a year early to go to the NFL where he was drafted by Washington. Spring drills came and went with neither Maye or Criswell emerging as the favorite.
Of all the starters who have to be replaced off last year’s team, who will take over for Howell is the most heavily scrutinized.
“It seems to be the No. 1 question,” said Maye, who is the younger brother of former UNC basketball star Luke Maye and the son of former UNC quarterback Mark Maye. “I just tell them we’re both competing, and we’re doing whatever we can, and it’s gonna play out how it plays out.”
The competition hasn’t stopped just because fall camp hasn’t started yet. And it manifests itself in everything the two players do. They try to be the first to show up for workouts even if it’s just the position group and the majority of players don’t know — and probably don’t care. Or being the first to answer a question posed by quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Phil Longo during a film session.
Criswell joked if Maye constructs a nice plate of food while self-serving during their lunch buffet, well, he’s got to make a better plate that looks more delicious. Criswell said it actually sounds worse than it really is, because they both understand it’s all in the framework of team.
“First time we got here, it’s kind of tough, because we knew that we were both battling so not many words were said in the beginning of everything,” Criswell said. “But now as we gotten used to it, gotten used to what we’re supposed to be doing … (we’re) making sure that guys see that, ‘OK, there’s no type of beef between those two.’ We’re as cool as can be.”
Junior receiver Josh Downs had a record-breaking sophomore year setting school single-season marks with 101 receptions and 1,335 yards. Downs said he has seen how both players have grown since Criswell arrived in his recruiting class and Maye enrolled early in January 2021.
Downs called them both “natural leaders.”
“They both know how to talk and get a group to pay attention,” Downs said. “… I definitely see them developing and becoming leaders and being able to lead this team and take after Sam.”
Longo said Maye and Criswell remind him of the summer work Howell put in before he’d ever taken a collegiate snap. The duo, like Howell did, throw on their own a lot with receivers and running backs leading 7-on-7 drills.
“They have taken a greater leadership role with the team and particularly on offensive side of the ball,” Longo said. “We’re getting some things accomplished and taken care of in preparation for this year’s season. They learn this system more they worked on some of the progressive stuff that Sam was so good at, in the spring. And now, you know, they’re gearing up to compete.”
If the competition ends in a draw, it wouldn’t be the first time under coach Mack Brown that he used a two-quarterback rotation. But in the past when he did, the two players like Oscar Davenport and Chris Keldorf had very different skill sets.
Maye said he hadn’t thought much about the potential of splitting snaps, partly because he sees Criswell as having a similar skill set.
“Obviously, our playing styles aren’t that different,” Maye said. “So I’m not sure how they’d work that out. But I’m sure we can make that work and win some games. That’s all that matters.”
Criswell had a similar situation occur in high school when his dad, who was also his coach, made him earn the position instead of giving it to him prematurely. Criswell said he split snaps three games into the season before he established himself as the starter.
Criswell said if it comes down to sharing time with Maye, he’s also on-board.
“I don’t really mind it whatsoever, I mean, whatever is best for the team,” Criswell said. “While we’re out there playing a game and whoever performs the best, I understand that’s who gets the job and that’s how football is, it’s a business. So I completely understand it, and I’m all for it.”