I miss high school football season.

I’ve spent the past three years covering Union County high school football for The Enquirer-Journal, and the absence of a fall season in 2020 thanks to COVID-19 restrictions has me reminiscent of my time here.

Union County has been a hotbed of football talent over the past five years, and I’ve been very fortunate to cover some of the area’s best players, including several Division 1 prospects. What has stood out to me most during my time at the E-J is the strength of the quarterback play around the county.

There has been a surplus of strong arms in the county during my time here, and these are my thoughts on what I’ve seen from some of the county’s top passers. Here’s a look at my top five quarterbacks over the past three seasons in Union County.

5. Bryce McLain, Marvin RidgeI had the pleasure of watching Marvin Ridge a lot my first year at the E-J in 2017 because of how good the Mavericks were, and a big reason for that was then-senior quarterback Bryce McLain.

A true dual-threat, McLain completed 119-of-198 passes for 1,516 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions while also running for 1,004 yards and four touchdowns on 117 carries. Marvin Ridge finished second in the SCC behind Charlotte Catholic in 2017 and was eliminated by Sun Valley in the first round of the state playoffs.

What impressed me most about McLain was his decision-making. He knew when to take off and use his legs to pick up yards and first downs, but he always kept his eyes downfield and had a penchant for throwing on the run. He also wasn’t afraid of throwing the ball over the middle and could manipulate safeties with his eyes.

4. Jake Cameron, Marvin RidgeIronically, the first time I saw Jake Cameron play was also in 2017, when he filled in for an injured McLain in Marvin Ridge’s 27-24 win over Weddington. In that game, Cameron ran for two touchdowns to help the Mavericks take down their rivals and improve to 9-0 on the season.

From there, I knew the Mavericks would be in good hands in 2018 with Cameron in the running for the starting job. And he proved me right, completing 125-of-178 attempts for 1,609 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions in nine games while having to occasionally concede time to fellow senior Matthew Wunder and then-sophomore Sully McDermott. Head coach Aubrey Carter had three solid quarterbacks on his team in 2018, but Cameron stood clear above the other two, in my eyes. Of all the players on this list, Cameron saw the least action during his time in high school. It’s natural to wonder how things would have gone for the Mavericks in 2018 if they stuck with him the entire time.

3. Whitner LittonThe only state-title-winning quarterback on this list, Whitner Litton was a key cog in Weddington’s 2018 3AA championship team. Despite missing three games due to a suspension, Litton completed 141-of-234 passes for 2,055 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a senior.

Litton had an even better year the previous season, when he threw for 3,117 yards and 30 touchdowns for the Warriors before they fell to Charlotte Catholic in the 3A playoffs. Litton’s 59 career touchdown passes rank him No. 9 in county history, right behind current Weddington coach Andy Capone (63).

What stood out the most about Litton was his ability to make big plays down the field. He always knew where his top receiver, Max Brimigion, was at all times, and he wasn’t afraid to throw the ball downfield and let his playmakers make plays. He also threw perhaps the best goal-line fade of any quarterback on this list, which is an achievement in and of itself.

2. Grayson McCall, Porter RidgeWe’ve entered the upper-echelon of quarterbacks on this list, and landing just outside the top spot is former Porter Ridge and current Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall.

I watched McCall several times during his junior and senior seasons in 2017 and 2018 and was always impressed by his athletic abilities. The best true dual-threat quarterback the county has seen recently, McCall threw for and ran for over 3,000 yards while accounting for 75 total touchdowns during his career with the Pirates.

But perhaps what impressed me the most about McCall was his leadership, and he often led by example. I can’t count the amount of times I saw him take a punishing hit to get a first down or run downfield to block on a run play. I’m sure that attitude is part of the reason why he’s standing out at Coastal right now. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised with his growth as a passer since leaving Porter Ridge.

1. Sam Howell, Sun ValleyThis is probably anti-climatic for a lot of you who have followed football around the county recently, but there’s a large gap between players 2-5 and the player atop this list. Howell is Union County’s all-time leader in passing yards (13,355) and passing touchdowns (144), but he’s also likely to be the first county player selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

It was clear from the first time I saw Howell that he was a different animal. Even as a junior in 2017, he showed flashes of a future pro. The 6-foot-1 quarterback threw by far the best deep ball in the county and consistently put the ball in positions where only his receivers could catch it. I was also impressed by his sheer toughness as a runner, as he accumulated 2,986 rushing yards and 41 rushing touchdowns during his final two seasons with the Spartans.

There have been a lot of stellar athletes to come out of Union County, but Howell might be the best prospect ever from the area, regardless of sport. While there will continue to be an influx of talent around the county for years to come, there might never be another quarterback of Howell’s caliber playing in Union County.