It’s the question evaluators across the league are scrambling to answer as the first-year UNC starter has established himself as the best draft-eligible quarterback in college football
When Mitch Trubisky took his first recruiting visit to UNC as a high school junior, he was hosted by the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback, Bryn Renner. Renner was an upperclassman, and veteran of this drill. He met Trubisky at the football building knowing only what he needed to: The teenager was from Ohio. And the coaches wanted him bad.
“Anytime a high schooler comes by, you go, ‘O.K., let’s see what this kid is about,’” Renner says. So Renner took Trubisky to his off-campus house, and revved up FIFA with his roommate, running back (and future Cincinnati Bengal) Giovani Bernard.
Renner and Bernard bantered, kicked their feet up on the coffee table, traded taunts. Trubisky sat on the couch in silence. “Come on man,” Bernard said to the recruit, handing him a controller. “We have to break you in, we got to get you more fiery.”
Trubisky cautiously took control. A few minutes later, he scored his first goal. A few minutes after that, he teased Renner for his spotty defense. “And then he started giving it back to us,” Renner says. “He was scoring goals, doing fist pumps, getting up and cheering. It was like [the Adam Sandler movie] The Waterboy, when he opens a can of whoop-ass. Gio and I were like, What did we just unleash?”
It took Trubisky four years to display that, ahem, whoop-ass on the football field. He redshirted in 2013. In ’14 and ’15 he backed up Marquise Williams. When he finally got the nod this season, Trubisky introduced himself with oomph. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,468 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions during the regular season. He’s 6' 3", 220 pounds and looks as comfortable standing in the pocket as he does scooting outside and throwing on the move. Though UNC’s offense is a fairly basic variation of the spread, Trubisky’s quick release and tight spirals prove he can make every throw a top-tier quarterback needs to. His clean-shaven face gives him a boyish look, but his presence exudes anything but “first-year starter.” In a Sept. 24 comeback victory over Pittsburgh, Trubisky faced fourth-and-6 or longer three times on the game-winning drive, and converted on each.
For NFL teams, there’s a significant challenge in evaluating one-year starters. On one hand, there’s Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010. On the other, consider Akili Smith. A junior college transfer, Smith had 11 spectacular starts at Oregon and was drafted No. 3 overall by the Bengals in 1999. He made 17 career starts and posted a 52.8 passer rating. But in a thin year for draft-eligible quarterbacks, NFL teams desperately seeking a franchise QB have honed in on their prize. By mid-season, national scouts began making pilgrimages to Chapel Hill. One NFL evaluator called it “the biggest mid-year scramble I’ve seen in a while.” By December, the 22-year-old Trubisky was on the back page of a tabloid, The New York Daily News (naturally, linking him to the Jets.)
Trubisky’s take: “What am I doing on the cover of a tabloid? Me, in a tabloid? I just don’t get it. You go from nobody talking to you, even people talking bad about you. [As recently as] last year you’d hear people say, ‘He’s a horrible quarterback’—now being projected as one of the top quarterbacks taken if I decide to come out? That’s a crazy thing.”
Trubisky received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory panel. He still has one year of eligibility left. He says he will take time between the Dec. 30 Sun Bowl and Jan. 16 deadline to evaluate. His family, too, is scrambling with a new reality. “Our whole timeline is thrown off,” says his mother, Jeanne. “We thought he’d have one more year. Now we know we’re all going to have to regroup after the bowl game. We’ll see what his plans are, talk it out, and make sure he makes the right decision.”
Meanwhile, with only limited tape, NFL teams are racing to fill in as much info as possible. What they’ve learned: Mitch Trubisky lifts like a linebacker. He was homesick his first year of college. He likes playing Pictionary with his two younger brothers. His family of six makes an annual 18-hour drive to visit grandparents in Florida—and though Mitch has made only one of the last four, his 2016 New Year’s resolution was to call his family more often. He’ll never let a text from his high school coach go unreturned. He’s so popular in his hometown (Mentor, a suburb of Cleveland) that Tar Heel blue became the trendiest shirt color among school kids this fall. He’s reserved upon first introduction (when he called me earlier this week, he introduced himself as if he were cold calling to sell a new line of ski products: “Hello, this is Mitchell Trubisky, the quarterback at the University of North Carolina”), but fearless once comfortable.
And another thing: Trubisky has always had the pedigree to warrant this opportunity. He just needed someone to hand him the controller.
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Trubisky might have been born to play football. His parents met as flag football teammates at the University of Akron. Jeanne was a three-sport high school athlete, Dave played four sports. The genes passed on. “He put a pair of skates on, he could skate; put him on a diving board, he’d dive,” Jeanne says. “I don't meant to sound brag-ish, he was just one of those kids who was good at everything.”
Above all, football was his love. In elementary school, he volunteered as a ball boy at varsity games. In middle school, he went to football practice in the afternoon, then came home and ran his own practice in the evening—directing his two younger brothers, Manning and Mason, on routes as younger sister Mariah hiked the ball as a center. He made varsity as a freshman and was a starter as a sophomore. “We were a spread team, and threw a lot,” says Mentor’s head coach, Steve Trivisonno. “But Mitch’s junior year, we really didn’t have a running back, so he had to do most of the running too.” As a senior, he’d be named Ohio’s Mr. Football, becoming the first quarterback in the Greater Cleveland area to ever throw for more than 9,000 career yards.
Ohio’s Mr. Football wanted to go to Ohio State. The Buckeyes made an offer. “But before he was able to accept it, he finds out J.T. Barrett accepted first,” Trivisonno recalls. “Then he has an offer from Michigan State, and he’s thinking about it, but another kid took it right before he did.” It was spring of Trubisky’s junior year, and his recruitment reset. Meanwhile, Larry Fedora had just inherited the North Carolina program, and gave his offensive coordinator, Blake Anderson, control to pick his quarterback. Anderson grew up in Arkansas, played at Baylor, and had most recently coached at Southern Mississippi. Translation: he typically recruits in the South.
“I had never really gone up to the Northeast or Midwest, but there was another kid in Ohio I really liked,” Anderson recalls. That kid: DeShone Kizer.
“As I’m finding out more about Kizer, Trubisky’s name kept coming up,” Anderson says. “I wanted to find out more about him.”
Spring recruiting for college coaches is akin to the recon work NFL scouts do on college campuses. It was a no-contact period, meaning Anderson would visit Ohio but not communicate with Trubisky. Being his first recruit at UNC, Anderson wanted to make sure he got it right. He spent seven hours at Mentor High School. He got burgers with the Mentor coaches. He talked to a dozen people at the school, from the secretary to the principal, and asked what they thought of Trubisky. “They said all the things you want to hear: He cares about others, he has a good work ethic. These two things always came up: He’s a great kid, he loves his family,” Anderson says. “But what sold me was how he practiced.”
Mentor closed with a team period, offense versus defense. The coaches let Trubisky run it. “He called plays, formations, everything,” Anderson says. “It was like watching a coach on the field. It was like watching a seasoned vet, not a junior in high school. I mean, it’s stuff I hope our college players can do.” UNC offered Trubisky a scholarship the next day. Trubisky’s recruitment tour had spanned seven states. When he told his parents he wanted to add North Carolina, Jeanne sighed. “Honey, we’re out of money,” she told her son. Trivisonno ended up going as a chaperone. “He wasn’t even off the plane yet and he was telling us he was ready to commit,” Jeanne recalls. “I said, ‘alright, let’s settle down,’ but he said, ‘No, mom, this is it. This is where I belong.’”
Renner has one other vivid memory from Trubisky’s recruiting visit. After playing FIFA, they talked about life. Trubisky mentioned his goals; he gushed about his family. Recalls Renner: “When Mitch left, I remember Gio [Bernard] said, ‘That’s a mature guy right there. There’s something about him.’”
• DESHONE KIZER AND THE ND QB FRATERNITY: Former Fighting Irish signal callers weighed in on the pressures of South Bend, and why Kizer might be the one to become Notre Dame’s first great NFL quarterback since Joe Montana.
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The first question NFL teams pose about Trubisky is this: If he’s so good, why did it take him so long to get on the field? Renner’s last season was 2013, opening a competition between Trubisky and dual threat QB Marquise Williams, two years ahead of Trubiksy and an effective fill-in for an injured Renner. Many inside the North Carolina program describe a tense, seesawing battle entering the ’14 season. Fedora ultimately chose Williams, perhaps due in part to seniority, though he utilized a two-quarterback system, putting Trubisky on the field. “It was hard, at times,” Trubisky says. “That first year, that was the farthest I’ve been from my family ever. They were nine hours away, and with my two brothers and my sister all competing in sports, they couldn’t always make the trip. I was really homesick. Then when things don’t quite go as you’d like, you learn about yourself. I’m so appreciative of everyone who supported me but there were times where I had doubts.”
Renner spent time with the Broncos and Ravens, plus a cup of coffee with three other teams (he made it to the final cut down with the Steelers last summer). When he graduated, he offered this advice to Trubisky: You have to create your own opportunities. “Reps are few and far between,” Renner said to his mentee. “You might have to stay after with the guys to get throws in. That’s what I did when T.J. [Yates] was here, and that’s what you might need to do.” As Renner soaked in more time in NFL quarterback rooms, he brought other tidbits. “When I saw how Peyton Manning, and [Joe] Flacco prepared, and all those guys behind them, you learn that mental reps do mean something,” Renner says.
When Renner returned to UNC for spring practices last April, he noticed something: Trubisky had learned. He was seeing the field more clearly. He was playing with poise, as if he’d been there before.
“I don’t know when it clicked for me, but it was just this realization that as a quarterback, you can decide how good you want to be, it all comes down to staying locked in at practice,” Trubisky says. “I’d stand behind the other quarterback taking the rep and go through it every single time. I thought, Where would I go with the ball? What footwork would I do? If I physically wasn’t going to take the rep, I was going to mentally take it.”
As for the wave of attention? He's riding it. “Really, the weirdest thing has been random people Tweeting at me,” he says. “That’s something I might never get used to.”
Adds mom: “He thinks it’s funny when people want his autograph. He’ll say, ‘That’s silly, why do they want that?’ Mitch is someone who has always had the spotlight on him, but doesn’t react to it. Really, what you see on the field is how he is off it. He's not quiet, he’s just not showy. He’ll rarely celebrate. Sometimes he’s probably internalizing, but he internalizes well. That’s what makes him a good quarterback.”
Earlier this month, Renner returned to Chapel Hill to attend a basketball game. He texted Trubisky, and the two grabbed dinner.
“I expected him to be nervous,” Renner says. “I was freaking out when I was in his position. I said, ‘You have such a big decision to make, are you nervous at all?’”
“Nope,” Mitch said. Then he placed an order for nachos.
“It’s crazy, he was just same old Mitch,” Renner says.
In the corner of the restaurant, TVs played the college awards program. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was accepting the Davey O’Brien award, as the nation’s best quarterback.
Renner saw Trubisky’s eyes hone in. “I should be there,” he muttered.
Responded Renner: “You know what, it’s almost better that you’re not. You can fly under the radar and go make a real statement.”
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Bears wide receiver Daniel Braverman hyping former Western Michigan teammate Corey Davis.
“He’s an animal, he’s a beast. I was so blessed to play with a guy like that; that’s a future first-round pick. He's a great friend of mine, we still talk a lot, but I can say, unbiased, that nobody matches his hard work and determination. He would come early to meetings, he would stay late after practice to do extra reps. He would be in the football building watching film later than anyone. He was always in [wide receivers coach Matt] Simon’s office watching extra film on his computer when everybody else had left. That’s who Corey is. He has a drive because of what he has gone through early in his life. Pretty much every game he's making one freak play—at least. Every game this year I’ve watched, I’ve seen a play where I say, ‘How does he do that?’ But that’s Corey Davis and what Corey Davis does. I’ve seen what it takes to be a receiver in this league, what the pros do preparation wise, and you can note: Corey Davis is going to be a star NFL receiver.”
• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round.
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado: Impressed by his versatility; he lines up everywhere. Strong in run support. Speed and instincts are there. He makes plays with his eyes.
Haason Reddick, DE/LB, Temple: Great motor. High effort guy who covers a lot of ground. Can consistently set the edge. Concerns: He doesn’t win with power. Think he’ll project best at outside linebacker.
Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford : He’s a stud, if he declares this year [Thomas is a third-year sophomore]. Very active hands, quick in shedding blocks. Flexible body with good control. Emotional leader.
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Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage previews the position groups for the 2017 Senior Bowl. Practices in Mobile begin Tuesday, January 24.
With so many college offenses going heavy on three- and four-wide receiver sets, virtually every defense is in a four-man defensive front most of the time. This evolution has led to the emergence of the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker that can get after the passer. Next month in Mobile, a wide variety of pass rushers will be on display, including some that translate to the OLB spot: Alabama’s Ryan Anderson, Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel, UCLA’s Tak McKinley and Carroll Phillips of Illinois. In addition, we have invites out to Alabama’s Tim Williams and Auburn's Carl Lawson.
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