Former Thompson QB Conner Harrell makes first college start for North Carolina in Duke’s Mayo Bowl

Published 10:20 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While he came out on the losing end of the game, Conner Harrell still had a reason to celebrate: he started at quarterback for the first time in his college career.

Harrell represented Thompson High School and his hometown of Alabaster as he made his first career start with the North Carolina Tar Heels against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Wednesday, Dec. 27.

In the 30-10 loss to West Virginia, Harrell went 18-for-27 passing for 199 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions while also running 17 times for 26 yards.

“I think I did make some throws, I scrambled some times when I needed to,” Harrell said after the game. “Obviously, I’ll get to see the film, see what all went bad, but I’ve got some stuff to carry on, some stuff to build on.”

Harrell was named the starter for UNC’s bowl game after Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye, who is widely expected to be one of the top picks in the 2024 NFL Draft, declared for the draft and opted out of playing in the bowl game.

After taking the field for UNC, the former state champion and Class 7A Back of the Year quickly got to work with three first-down runs to try and spark his team’s offense after falling in a 7-0 hole on the first play of the game.

While Harrell threw an interception inside the Mountaineers red zone late in the first quarter and suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter, he remained efficient in the air and struck back just before halftime.

With 27 seconds left in the first half, Harrell hit receiver JJ Jones for a 15-yard touchdown pass to earn his second scoring throw of the year and cut the deficit to 17-10 going into the locker room.

That capped an impressive first half from the former Warrior where he went 11-for-13 passing for 123 yards, a touchdown, an interception and 10 rushes for 70 yards.

Harrell and the Heels were held scoreless in the second half as the Mountaineers defense dialed up the pressure and made life difficult for North Carolina, and West Virginia added a punt return touchdown and two field goals to earn the 20-point win.

After the game, UNC head coach Mack Brown complimented Harrell on his performance, acknowledging the limitations caused by the ankle injury and saying the team didn’t do enough to protect him.

“We didn’t protect well enough, but I thought overall, he did a lot of great things and this will really help him going into spring practice,” Brown said.

Harrell confirmed after the game that the coaching staff has told him he will compete with incoming Texas A&M transfer Max Johnson for the starting quarterback role ahead of the 2024 season.

As he goes into the offseason, Harrell said that he will use the lessons from his first start to help him improve going into the quarterback battle.

“I think I had some pocket-presence issues,” Harrell said. “Obviously, I’ll watch the film and see it more, but the same stuff I’m working on to get here, that’s what I will work on in the offseason and keep building.”

Despite the loss, he hopes that playing for the entire game with the spotlight on him as the starter will be a great learning experience that he can build off of for the rest of his career.

“Obviously, having a little bit of experience, being out there under the lights is different,” Harrell said. “So that does give me more confidence, knowing that you’ve done it before.”