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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell said his goodbyes Thursday after the Tar Heels’ 38-21 loss to South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, even if he’s not ready yet to say he’s leaving.

NFL scouts were in place in the press box eyeing Howell and other potential pro prospects. Howell didn’t have a big game to show them — he passed for just 205 yards, connecting on 12 of 20 attempts — but one game isn’t ruining the three seasons of talent he’s displayed.

UNC coach Mack Brown believes Howell is a first-round pick. But he’s leaving it up to Howell and his family to decide when it’s time to declare for the NFL draft.

“I still have some decisions to make, but know if this is my last game, I’m just forever grateful for everything,” Howell said. “It’s been a blessing to be at Carolina, and I’m just so appreciative for all the help along the way.”

Brown replaced Howell with freshman Drake Maye with less than a minute left in the game. Brown said he didn’t want to put Howell on the spot like it was his last game, so he didn’t make some grand gesture on the sideline to commemorate the moment.

Brown did pull Howell up to speak to the team in the locker room after the game.

“I didn’t want to put him in a position where it looked like I was making that decision for him or that I knew something because I didn’t think that was proper for him,” Brown said. “But I brought him up in front of the team and talked about he’s such a warrior, he’s such a competitor. Most quarterbacks of his status that are first-round draft choices would not have played today.”

The junior quarterback was the last UNC player to leave the field at Bank of America Stadium. He stopped in the southwest corner before entering the tunnel, hands clutching the inside collar of his shoulder pads, and gazed through the Gamecocks’ celebration at midfield.

He bowed his head, said a silent prayer and with a quick point to the sky, he disappeared to the locker room, as if the last thing for him to do was turn off the lights.

“I was just trying to take everything in and said a quick prayer to thank God just for everything,” Howell said. “Just to be back here in Charlotte, my hometown, to have the opportunity to play in a game like this, I’m just super blessed and super appreciative.”

Howell said “a lot of prayer” would go into making his decision throughout the “next couple of days.”

There’s not much more glory left to chase for Howell. He’s set most major records in program history when it comes to passing. He could try to chase the Heisman Trophy if that’s a goal of his.

If he returned, it would be more beneficial to the program than to him individually.

“We’d obviously love to have him,” Brown said. “If not, some pro team is going to be really lucky to get a guy who loves football, competes at the highest level and that I admire so much on and off the field.”