Indian Trail, population 40,000, produced two top 5 quarterbacks in Sam Howell and Grayson McCall.
The 2020 college football season was fraught with surprises.
Coronavirus upended the season. There were shocking wins and losses and unexpected cancellations and developments each week. Despite all odds though — and a number of COVID outbreaks, including one that nearly postponed tonight’s national championship game — many schools saw their programs play a complete season.
But before the season began, even the most astute college football expert would have never predicted that two of the best quarterbacks in the country this year — UNC’s Sam Howell and Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall — would hail from rival high schools in the Charlotte suburb of Indian Trail.
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According to Pro Football Focus, the two Union County natives were among the top five quarterbacks in the country, with Howell placing third and McCall finishing fifth. Their paths have been different, but both young men shared the distinction of putting oft-overlooked college football programs, and overlooked towns, on the map.
A 22-square-mile town in Union County, Indian Trail is a rapidly-growing suburb with an intense high school football scene.
Howell attended Sun Valley High School, located between Indian Trail and Monroe. A dual-sport athlete and four-year varsity starter at quarterback, the Union County native was on the radar of one of the most prominent coaches in college football even before taking a snap in high school.
“I introduced him to (Clemson football coach) Dabo Swinney at a fundraiser in Charlotte,” Tad Baucom, Howell’s high school coach, told Cardinal & Pine. “I told Coach Swinney, ‘I got a kid I want you to meet that’s pretty special, his name is Sam Howell.’” Baucom says Swinney looked at the young man, who already had some facial hair at the time, and thought he was a sophomore or junior. Howell was only in the eighth grade.
A few days later, there was a knock on Baucom’s door, as he told ESPN. It was Danny Pearman, Clemson’s tight ends coach. He was there to see Howell, at Swinney’s request.
“He’s not here,” Baucom said. “Didn’t Dabo tell you? He’s at the middle school.”
Grayson McCall, who played quarterback seven miles away at Porter Ridge High School, was not nearly as highly-touted as the kid from Sun Valley. McCall didn’t start for Porter Ridge until his sophomore year, when new head coach Michael Hertz arrived. “What really struck me about (McCall) was his learning curve,” said Hertz. “As a young player, he would make mistakes, but he would correct them very quickly and he has done that his entire career.”
“Dude is a dog,” said Mason Mills, who played running back at Porter Ridge with McCall. “Grayson was always very hard on himself, even when (the mistakes) weren’t his fault. He took it on the chin and would correct himself and teammates.”
Hertz describes McCall as an open personality, a charismatic young man with a great smile that drew lots of people in. Howell, according to Baucom, was very quiet in high school and a sponge for academics and football. Despite their different paths and personalities, the two signal-callers electrified fans for three years when their teams went to battle in Union County.
“It was high-intensity,” said Hertz. “It really stepped (the game) up to another notch because you had two really good quarterbacks and it’s unique to have those two caliber quarterbacks dueling each other.”
Almost every game came down to the wire and Howell’s arm talent was on display against McCall’s athleticism and knack for making tough plays.
Fast forward to their senior year, McCall, a modestly-ranked two-star prospect (out of five stars), committed to play football at Coastal Carolina University in December of 2018. Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell said he saw similarities between the offensive scheme at Porter Ridge and what they were running at Coastal.
“You saw some natural stuff that a lot of quarterbacks don’t do,” Chadwell told The Charlotte Observer. “He fits our system. But he also helped build a relatively new program and get it into a state semifinal appearance. We’re a relatively new program that also needed to take it to the next level. So those pieces attracted us.”
“Indian Trail is a small town but we ride for each other. (We) love watching both Gray & Sam in college. There might be a little fight about who’s better depending on which school you went to but it’s all love & support from both sides.”Mason Mills, former high school teammate of Grayson McCall
For Howell, a four-star athlete and seventh ranked quarterback in the Class of 2019, the decision on where to take his talents was more complicated.
The Sun Valley QB got offers from several college football heavyweights including Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Miami, and Florida State. As the story goes, Howell initially committed to Florida State — the first school that had offered him a scholarship. But a few months later, Sam flipped to head coach Mack Brown and the University of North Carolina after the Florida State assistant coach that recruited him took a head coaching position at a different school.
“I knew that was going to be a safe place for him,” Baucom said of UNC. “Mack’s like a grandfather figure… he’s taken care of Sam.”
Grabbing the Spotlight
After only playing two games for Coastal Carolina in the 2019 season, McCall redshirted — allowing him another year of college eligibility — and earned the starting job in 2020. In the season opener against Kansas, he accounted for five touchdowns including a 12-yard scoring run that ended with a John Elway-esque helicopter dive into the endzone. And that was just the beginning.
The Porter Ridge product put Coastal Carolina on the map by leading his team to a Sun Belt conference championship and an 11-0 regular season record, including a huge win on national TV against then undefeated BYU.
Coach Hertz texted his former QB before the biggest game of his young career to say he was proud of him. “We all knew he was special,” said Hertz. “He’s inspired a lot of the young football players at (Porter Ridge) and (his success) has motivated them to work harder, knowing that if they apply themselves, they can hopefully have the same success that he’s had.”
McCall’s Chanticleers finished their regular season one spot ahead of Howell’s Tar Heels in the College Football Playoff Committee rankings.
As a true freshman, Howell established himself as a premier passer in 2019, leading what had been a struggling UNC program to a 7-6 regular season record and a bowl win. In his sophomore year, the 20-year old took his team higher, finishing the regular season 8-3 and earning a coveted bid to the Orange Bowl in Miami.
UNC lost the bowl game to Texas A&M, but in doing so Howell threw the 67th touchdown of his college career, surpassing future top NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence’s record of touchdown passes through two seasons.
While the Sun Valley-Porter Ridge rivalry hasn’t dissipated, it means more to those that used to watch them on Friday nights that they’ve had collegiate success close to home.
Coach Baucom, now the head football coach at Hickory Grove Christian School in Charlotte, said the entire community embraced both young men. He went on to say of his quarterback: “He’s Union County’s Sam Howell, not just Sun Valley’s Sam Howell.”
“Indian Trail is a small town but we ride for each other,” said Mills. “(We) love watching both Gray & Sam in college. There might be a little fight about who’s better depending on which school you went to but it’s all love & support from both sides.”