Can Drake Maye Lead UNC to Places
Tar Heels’ Other NFL QBs Didn’t Reach?
(Duke, ECU, NC State All Pulled This Off)

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

The best professional quarterback Duke has ever produced is Sonny Jurgensen, who played 18 seasons in the National Football League, made five Pro Bowls and earned four All-Pro honors on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

During the two seasons Jurgensen was the Blue Devils’ starting QB, in 1955 and 1956, they shared one Atlantic Coast Conference championship and posted top-25 national finishes in both years.

The best professional quarterback East Carolina has ever produced is Jeff Blake, who played 13 NFL seasons, including eight as a starter.

During Blake’s senior season with the Pirates, in 1991, ECU posted by far the greatest season in program history: 11-1, including a 37-34 victory over NC State in the Peach Bowl. The Pirates finished #9 in the polls, which remains their highest ranking ever, and Blake was seventh in that year’s Heisman Trophy balloting.

The best professional quarterback NC State has ever produced is Philip Rivers, who played 17 NFL seasons, including 15 as a starter.

During Rivers’ junior season with the Wolfpack, in 2002, State posted one of the greatest seasons in program history: 11-3, including a 28-6 victory over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. That remains the only Pack team ever to post double-digit victories, and its final ranking (#11) in the coaches’ poll was the second-highest in program history. During Rivers’ senior season, in 2003, the Pack finished only 8-5, but Rivers was seventh in that year’s Heisman voting.

While the University of North Carolina has produced more than 240 NFL players overall, led by the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers, the Tar Heels have had shockingly little success at sending quarterbacks to the next level.

Although UNC has tweaked that narrative for the better over the last 12 years, during which TJ Yates (from the Butch Davis era), Mitch Trubisky (from the Larry Fedora era) and Sam Howell (from the Mack Brown era) became the first three former Tar Heels to earn starting QB duties in the NFL, Carolina clearly failed to fully capitalize on those players’ time in Chapel Hill.

TJ Yates (10 NFL starts)
Seasons As UNC’s Starting QB
Year — Overall Record (Head Coach)
2007 — 4-8 (Butch Davis)
2008 — 8-5 (Butch Davis)
2009 — 8-5 (Butch Davis)
2010 — 8-5 (Butch Davis)

Mitch Trubisky (55 NFL starts)
Seasons As UNC’s Starting QB
Year — Overall Record (Head Coach)
2016 — 8-5 (Larry Fedora)

Sam Howell (1 NFL start; Washington’s 2023 starter)
Seasons As UNC’s Starting QB
Year — Overall Record (Head Coach)
2019 — 7-6 (Mack Brown)
2020 — 8-4; #18 national ranking (Mack Brown)
2021 — 6-7 (Mack Brown)

For now, at least, Trubisky, 29, must be considered the most successful NFL quarterback in UNC history. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, he started 50 games during his four seasons with Chicago, going 29-21 and leading the Bears to two playoff appearances. He has been mostly a backup for Buffalo and Pittsburgh over the past two seasons, and he remains behind Steelers starter Kenny Pickett going into the 2023 season.

There’s a chance that Howell and/or current UNC quarterback Drake Maye, a projected first-round pick in the 2024 NFL draft, will surpass Trubisky’s relatively modest NFL track record in the coming years.

In the meantime, Maye hopes to lead the Tar Heels to the sort of truly special season that ended up being beyond the reach of Yates, Trubisky and Howell, who all peaked in the 8-4/8-5 range during their time as starters in Chapel Hill.

Maye almost turned that trick last season. He became the first UNC player since 1980 (Lawrence Taylor) to receive the ACC player of the year honor, he finished 10th in the Heisman balloting, and the Tar Heels earned a trip to Charlotte to face Clemson in the ACC title game. In the end, though, four straight losses to end the season dropped the Heels from the Top 25 and left them with a what-if 9-5 mark.

“We were 9-1 rolling into Georgia Tech, and we finished 9-5. Just finding ways to use it as motivation, but at the same time get over that hump and look forward to this season,” Maye said. “We’re excited. That’s our goal: to get back to the ACC championship. I don’t think Coach (Brown) or any of the guys care who we play, just as long as we’re in it. So that’s the main goal. That’s what we’re working towards.”

UNC hasn’t won the ACC football championship since 1980. The Tar Heels have finished in the national Top 25 only twice (#15 in 2015 under Fedora, #18 in 2020 under Brown) since Brown left Chapel Hill in 1997 to take the Texas job. The only Carolina player ever to finish in the top seven of the Heisman voting was Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, who was second in both 1948 and 1949.

Any combination of those accolades and accomplishments would allow Maye to cement his status as one of the greatest players in UNC history … and perhaps the greatest NFL quarterback prospect in UNC history.

“(I’m) just keeping the main thing the main thing; that’s winning games,” Maye said. “All those personal accolades come with winning football games and having North Carolina being up there in the conversation of the ACC championship or bigger things.”

NOTE: DG included this topic among his “State of North Carolina Top 10 Preseason Football Questions,” which were part of this week’s DG Show podcast (link below), highlighted by a lengthy 1-on-1 conversation with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, a two-time national champion as the Tigers’ head coach and a one-time national champion as a player at Alabama.