CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The day after North Carolina dropped a winnable season-opener against South Carolina in 2015, Keith Heckendorf was on the road recruiting but taking the time to check in on his quarterbacks. When the passing game coordinator and QBs coach got Mitch Trubisky on the phone, he was surprised at what he heard.
“Coach, I’m exhausted,” said the redshirt sophomore, who didn’t play a single snap in the 17–13 loss to the Gamecocks. “I lived and died on every play in that game.”
Despite a stellar training camp that year, Trubisky lost out on the starting job to Marquise Williams for a second straight year. But Williams struggled in that first game, throwing one touchdown against three interceptions—including two in the end zone—and an overmatched South Carolina team emerged victorious against the Tar Heels. Trubisky admitted to his position coach that he thought his coach would turn to him and he’d lead the Heels to victory.
“But Coach,” Trubisky continued, “I don’t want to play because Marquise struggles. I want to play because you, Coach [Larry] Fedora and everyone on this team believes that I can help us win ballgames.”
This story is emblematic of Trubisky’s ability to be a great teammate, for sure. But it also lays the foundation for the answer to the question everyone has about one of the draft’s top quarterback who started only one full season of college ball: If Mitch Trubisky is so good, why was he a backup for two seasons to a guy who didn’t make a final 53-man NFL roster?
Currently, Trubisky sits in the premiere class of this year’s quarterback crop, ranking just above Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer. The former Mr. Ohio threw 30 touchdowns, ran for five more and tossed just six interceptions last season for the 8–5 Tar Heels. He’s accurate with a big arm, mobile inside and outside of the pocket and features a clean character slate. To understand what took him so long to get on your radar, you have to go all the way back to 2013.
That season, fifth-year senior Bryn Renner needed season-ending shoulder surgery in early November, and UNC coaches tabbed Williams as the starter for the rest of the season. Trubisky had enrolled early at the school and performed well in the spring, but they decided against burning his redshirt in a season where the Tar Heels started 1–5 and had no shot at an ACC title. Williams won four of his six starts and rolled into the next season with that experience under his belt.
Both Fedora and Heckendorf say Trubisky and Williams were neck-and-neck in 2014, but Williams’ experience won out. The Tar Heels also knew their offensive line wasn’t strong, and Williams was the better, more powerful runner of the two. Fedora found a compromise, though. He would play Trubisky on the third offensive series of every game and go from there.
“I didn’t want Marquise looking over his shoulder every snap, and I wanted Mitch knowing that he was going in at this point,” Fedora said. “Not, ‘You’re going to go in, oh I don’t like this situation, well maybe next series, now the series after that,’ and then you don’t get him in. We were going to bite the bullet and he’s going in on the third series.
“Whether he eventually wins the job or he’s the second-team guy, now he has meaningful reps, so if something does happen to Marquise, we can roll with him.”
The rotation was awkward and never worked. Coaches reassured Trubisky that it was fine if a series ends in a punt, but naturally Trubisky pressed trying to make his mark with his opportunity. He completed just 54% of his passes and had as many touchdowns (four) as interceptions. With a historically bad defense—the Heels lost four games in a seven-game stretch by giving up 70, 50, 50 and 47 points—and Trubisky struggling to get comfortable, Fedora abandoned the rotation and the Tar Heels stuck with Williams in a forgettable 6–7 season.
With Williams leading the way on the field for the rest of that season, Trubisky kept busy in the weightroom. He came to Carolina at 195 pounds and played the 2016 season between 220-225 pounds with lean muscle gained from the gym. Before the December Sun Bowl against Stanford, Trubisky was doing 350-pound power cleans easily.
“That really propelled him into that offseason that hey I’m going to go win this job,” Heckendorf said. “We came into the offseason and I told him if you want this job, you have to go get it. He had this feeling that, ‘I’m not going to let this happen again. I’m going to be ready to lead this team going forward.’”
Well, about that…
By most accounts, Trubisky was the better quarterback in the fall leading up to the start of the 2015 season and would have been the starter in a vacuum. But the truth was that Trubisky had to be demonstrably better than Williams to get the job for three reasons. First, Williams had 19 starts to Trubisky’s zero. Second, Williams was one of the lone offensive bright spots from the previous year and boasted the charisma and leadership qualities the team needed. And finally, benching a fifth-year senior quarterback from Charlotte to start the year likely wouldn’t have played well back in UNC’s biggest recruiting hub.
There was some disagreement among the offensive staff members on Fedora’s decision but they went with it. The Tar Heels were on their way to a 3–1 record that season when Fedora yanked Williams midway through the win against Delaware because Williams was freelancing against the Blue Hens. Trubisky completed 17 of his 20 passes (with two drops) for 312 yards and four touchdowns and was named the ACC Offensive Back of the Week.
The following day Fedora told his staff that he was sticking with Williams so long as the senior would play within the offense the following week at Georgia Tech. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels went down 21–0 in the first half, and there was a palpable feeling the offense would soon be turned over to Trubisky.
“A change may have happened” at quarterback if things had gone differently, Fedora said. “What you are thinking about in that game,” he continued, “do we need a change to try to spark something? What’s the reason that we’re down 21-0 right now? It wasn’t the quarterback.”
Williams engineered one of the greatest comebacks in team history. He led the team in passing, rushing and receiving in that game and got the 38–31 win in Atlanta, the first one for North Carolina since 1997.
“From that moment, there was no conversation,” Heckendorf says emphatically. “There was no conversation. That solidified that this is Marquise’s team.”
UNC went 11–3 that season, including a narrow loss to Clemson in the ACC title game. Conference coaches and media voted Williams as the second-team All-ACC quarterback behind Heisman-finalist Watson. Williams finished his UNC career as the school’s all-time leader in total offense and touchdowns scored. So while it’s true that Williams went undrafted last year and didn’t make the final cut in Green Bay, he’s also one of the most prolific players in Carolina history.
Trubisky’s play in 2016 didn’t surprise anyone in Tar Heel Land. He showed glimpses of it in spot duty during the 2015 season (he completed 85% of his passes and had six touchdowns and no picks), and Trubisky rolled in the first three-quarters of the season. He had UNC at 7–2 with a shot at a rematch with Clemson in the conference title game when his game (and the rest of the team) took a step back. The Tar Heels lost three of their last four games, including the Sun Bowl loss against Stanford. If the biggest knock on Trubisky is his pocket awareness, those bad traits showed in losses to rivals Duke and N.C. State. But Trubisky’s coach is willing to shoulder the blame for that.
Trubisky, a mild-mannered kid from Ohio, was suddenly atop Mel Kiper’s Big Board for quarterbacks. He made the back page of a New York tabloid. His friends and teammates teased and questioned him about his future plans.
“As I look back on it, I wish I could have done more to take some of that pressure off of him,” Fedora admits. “I wish I could have shut it down so that it would have been taken off of him so he didn’t have to always worry about it because it was there. I think I could have done a better job of insulating him from it, and down the stretch he would have been an even better quarterback.”
That’s a coach’s lament for a player who waited his turn not once but twice, who didn’t raise a fuss when he wasn’t picked, who didn’t demand a transfer in a player-coach meeting and whose parents didn’t trash the school on a message board. Trubisky will face that pressure this week at the combine, next month at his pro day and in his several individual meetings with these in weeks before the draft. Fedora is sure Trubisky can and will rise to the occasion, and Trubisky has already fulfilled one of his coach’s prophecies.
“If you didn’t follow Carolina football closely and didn’t see the controversy of the quarterbacks early on, you wouldn’t have known who Mitch was before this year,” Heckendorf said. “I would go to recruits and say by the end of this season, everybody in the country will know who Mitch Trubisky is. I believed it with every fiber of my being.
“And sure enough, the season ends and everybody in the country knows who Mitch Trubisky is.”