CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After three years of promise, scrutiny and expectation, Mitch Trubisky is set to take the reins of Larry Fedora’s high-powered offense.
For a brief moment in the fall of 2013, in the days following Bryn Renner’s shoulder injury that ended the quarterback’s senior season, UNC’s plan to redshirt Trubisky nearly changed, according to a team source.
As it turned out, a previous injury to Renner earlier in the season, one that presented Marquise Williams with his first career start at Virginia Tech, played a role in UNC’s decision to keep the highly-touted freshman’s redshirt year intact. Williams impressed the coaching staff with his poise under pressure in that 27-17 loss at Lane Stadium, and ultimately replaced Renner as the starting quarterback.
Fedora’s affinity for Trubisky’s potential irked significant portions of the fan base in 2014 due to his insistence on inserting the backup quarterback for predetermined series early in the season while the offense struggled to find its rhythm. That sometimes awkward rotation ended midway through the fall, although Fedora maintains the repetitions served their purpose.
Case in point: After Williams lost his helmet inside the red zone with under five minutes to play and UNC trailing by six at Virginia on Oct. 25, 2014, Trubisky stepped in and threw a game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Thorpe on 3rd-and-15.
Trubisky’s results were mixed in his first season as a backup. He completed 53.8 percent of his passes for 459 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. After receiving the bulk of the reps last spring due to Williams’s offseason hip surgery, the Mentor, Ohio native elevated his play last fall in spot duty as a backup.
In 2015, Trubisky completed 85.1 percent of his passes for 555 yards with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He came off the bench against Delaware to complete 17-of-20 passes for 312 yards, all career highs, and rushed for 39 yards on six attempts. His 282.0 passer rating in the 41-14 win was a school record.
Now, entering his fourth spring practice at UNC, Trubisky will take over at quarterback after Williams set a plethora of offensive records in his final campaign.
“He better be excited,” quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf said after the season. “It’s a great opportunity for him to go out and lead the football team and show that he’s the guy to take us to the next level. I think he’ll relish that opportunity, and that opportunity to compete for that job, and I think he’ll embrace that. Obviously, we’re excited about the future in him, as well as a lot of guys we’ve got coming back.”
Three times Trubisky came off the bench when Williams lost his helmet and converted, twice throwing touchdown passes and the other picking up a critical first down on a third-and-long in the ACC Championship Game against Clemson. While fans and media eventually came to expect such plays, his coaches and teammates were never in doubt.
“We see it every day,” Heckendorf said. “I don’t think there was a single guy on our sidelines that even batted an eye when he went in. I don’t think there is a single guy on our team that thought, ‘Man, he completed that?’ They expect him to complete it. They expect him to complete every pass. Probably the reason they expect that is because they see it every day in practice. They see how accurate he is, they see how competitive he is, and I think this team really embraces him when he’s in there. I think there’s a lot of confidence in him.”
Trubisky’s maturation to this point has not been about mechanics or changes in fundamentals, but rather from the mental intangibles that come while adjusting to college ball.
"I would say my dedication, knowing my role on the team, and being prepared,” Trubisky said. “Preparing hard every week and knowing the situation every week when I come into the game. And then just having confidence in myself and knowing that my teammates have confidence in me to make the play.”
While there are plenty of similarities between Williams and Trubisky – after all, Fedora is dead set on recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks to stress opposing defenses – there are distinct differences, as well.
“If you compare Trubisky and Williams, Trubisky does a really good job of going through his progressions quickly in the passing game,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said in a recent sitdown with Inside Carolina “We’re going to run the ball no matter what. We took some shots with Williams over the top, but there may be a more high percentage passing game, or early-down passing stuff with Mitch that we feel comfortable with.
"We look back at all the plays (Trubisky) came in during pressure situations and performed. Mitch is a student of the game. He loves it, he lives it, and there are a lot of people giving him a lot of accolades, and he’s earned that from some of the things he’s done, but obviously this is the first chance he’s going to have to be ‘the guy,’ to compete to be our guy, and I expect him to do very well.”
Both Kapilovic and Heckendorf have complimented Trubisky for his work off the bench and in practice, although both have stressed that the redshirt junior still has to win the starting job and prove that he can lead this offense. There’s a significant difference in playing well for stretches of time and playing well all of the time.
One former teammate who made that transition quite successfully has no doubts Trubisky will keep UNC’s offense clicking in 2015 and beyond.
“He’s going to win us the ACC Championship,” Marquise Williams said.