CHARLOTTE, N.C. — College football has its royalty: The Clemsons and the Alabamas. The Notre Dames and the Ohio States. The 5-star recruits and the 80,000-seat stadiums packed to the gills in a non-COVID-19 year.
But most of college football isn't like that.
Most of college football is a lot more like Grayson McCall, who I believe in 2020 is the best underdog story on the best underdog team in the entire sport.
McCall starts at quarterback at Coastal Carolina, which only moved up to college football's highest division in 2017 but now boasts a perfect 11-0 record and a No. 9 national ranking. The Chanticleers play Louisiana in the Sun Belt Championship Saturday at home in Conway, South Carolina (3:30 p.m., ESPN). And, playing at a university just 20 minutes from Myrtle Beach, S.C., they've already had a season that seems almost too good to be true.
At the helm of Coastal Carolina's dream year has been McCall, a redshirt freshman who not that long ago was a dual-threat quarterback for Union County's Porter Ridge Pirates. That high school is located in Indian Trail, 22 miles southeast of uptown Charlotte, where McCall grew up as the youngest of three children.
Current North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell is the same age as McCall — they both recently turned 20. Howell played QB at nearby rival Sun Valley High and was drooled over by everyone before eventually committing to the Tar Heels. McCall, meanwhile, received modest interest and fewer scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
"There were people messing with him, but nobody ever laid that (FBS) offer out there like we did," said Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell, whose own success this season just prompted a contract extension through 2027.
"I was never 100 percent sure why Grayson wasn't more highly recruited," said Michael Hertz, who started McCall for three seasons as Porter Ridge's head coach. "He was a tremendous dual-threat QB for us. He had the size (6-3, 200). He had the grades. Maybe people felt he was more of a system quarterback or that he mainly just ran the ball. I don't know. When the lights came on, he was great for us every time."
Labeled a 2-star recruit by some recruiting services and a 3-star by others, McCall ran the ball more effectively than he threw it at Porter Ridge. And he also had some epic duels with Howell.
Once, in a 42-41 overtime loss to Howell's Sun Valley team in 2017 when both were juniors, McCall accounted for five touchdowns while wearing a cast on his left arm. He had Porter Ridge in position to win in OT until another Pirate fumbled the two-point conversion try.
But Howell had six TDs that same night — four rushing, two passing — and won by an eyelash in a game that includes numerous highlights still worth marveling over and remains preserved on YouTube. You watch those highlights and you say to yourself: Yes, Howell throws a better ball. But otherwise there's not a lot of difference.
As a high school senior in 2018, McCall had more rushing attempts (175) than passing (156). He had 21 rushing scores compared to nine passing TDs. In some games, he would only throw the ball four or five times.
It wasn't that McCall couldn't throw, Hertz said. The Pirates usually just didn't need him to. They also had a star tailback in Jaylen Coleman (now at Duke) and some good offensive linemen, so most of their plays consisted of either Coleman or McCall running the ball out of a shotgun formation.
Chadwell likes a running quarterback, too, and the coach was intrigued by the similarities between the high school offense McCall ran at Porter Ridge and the Coastal scheme.
"You saw some natural stuff that a lot of quarterbacks don't do," Chadwell said. "So hey, 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."
At Coastal Carolina, McCall has showcased his arm as well as his toughness. The Chanticleers went 2-6 last season in the Sun Belt and just 5-7 overall, so this season came out of nowhere in a league that had been recently dominated by Appalachian State.
McCall was a surprise starter in the 2020 season opener at Kansas, where the player all his teammates call "Gray" accounted for five TDs in a 38-23 win. It was the first one of those five, a 12-yard scoring run, that embedded itself into Chadwell's mind.
"He's running toward the end zone and they just drill him," Chadwick said. "He helicopters himself into the end zone. And he gets right back up. You're just like, 'Whoa, that's some toughness! This kid has got something."
I'd like to ask McCall about that play and about this season. Unfortunately, Chadwick doesn't allow his freshmen — even 20-year-old redshirt freshmen who have been on campus for well over a year and actually played in two games in 2019, as McCall did — to be interviewed by the media.
"It's hard being a freshman, trying to navigate academics and navigate the season," Chadwick said when asked about the policy. "It's really more for their protection."
Lots of colleges don't do it that way and feel like their freshman athletes can do interviews under supervision. After all, many of those same athletes already did just that in high school. McCall is sure talking a lot to his teammates, though, like always. Before every game, he likes to work his way from one end of the sideline to the other, engaging with every teammate with a fist-bump or a helmet pat.
"He's very involved," Hertz said. "Always has been. He talks to his teammates, to the other team. He just loves playing the game."
Coastal's most well-known win this season came at home against No. 8 Brigham Young on Dec. 5, a last-second matchup created by a COVID cancellation. The showdown featured two teams that were both ranked and 9-0 at the time. McCall threw for only 85 yards but ran for another 68 in a nail-biting 22-17 victory that raised the Chanticleers' national profile considerably.
Against Troy last Saturday, McCall threw for a career-high 338 yards and led a marvelous two-minute touchdown drive to avoid a near-upset in a 42-38 win. Entering the Sun Belt championship game, McCall has 23 touchdown passes and has been intercepted only twice.
A win Saturday against Louisiana before what will be a COVID-19-limited crowd of 5,000 could propel Coastal into a New Year's Six bowl. That's heady stuff for a program that has only been a full-time FBS member since 2017. The program does have some strong FCS history before that, though. Former Carolina Panthers Josh Norman and Mike Tolbert both starred for the Chants and played big parts in the Panthers' most recent Super Bowl team in the 2015 postseason.
Lisa McCall, Grayson's mother, said the family used to make the three-hour drive from Indian Trail to Myrtle Beach somewhat regularly in the summer, like so many Carolina families do.
"The way we drove, we would go through Conway," she said. "And not only that, we'd go right by the Coastal football field, which is called Brooks Stadium. My maiden name is Brooks, too, so I always noticed it.
"Grayson was already into football by the time he was 4 or 5 years old. So when he was young, sometimes when we drove by the stadium on the way to the beach, I'd say: 'Maybe you can play football there one day.' "