CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – There’s a level of intellectualism required to play quarterback. It’s a thinking man’s position, one where pre- and post-snap reads are every bit as critical as the ability to thread a pass between a pair of defensive backs or over the outreached hand of a linebacker in underneath coverage.
It also happens to be an academic position in a violent game. Players hurl their armored bodies at each other in a fit of calculated rage, over and over again. It’s at the intersection of that reality that inexperienced quarterbacks often find themselves, trying to balance the analytical with the animalistic.
That’s where Mitch Trubisky resided for the duration of North Carolina’s season-opening loss to Georgia. And it’s a place he had no intention of remaining at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
On UNC’s seventh offensive play from scrimmage against Illinois, the junior signal caller read the defensive end crashing off the edge and kept the ball, racing down the left seam for a 39-yard gain. Quarterbacks are taught to slide to avoid contact, or at least run out of bounds. Trubisky did neither, instead absorbing a hard hit by Jaylen Dunlap at the 7-yard line.
Larry Fedora wasn’t particularly happy with the decision, but he understood the explanation his starting quarterback provided once he returned to the sideline.
“I needed it.”
It’s not uncommon for coaches to slowly acclimate inexperienced quarterbacks into games with short and easy passes to calm the nerves in the brain and release the butterflies embedded in the gut. It’s also not uncommon for coaches to run those same quarterbacks into the brutality of the game, leading them into collisions to flush the rising adrenaline.
Fedora took care of the former in the Georgia Dome with a series of bubble screens and shallow crosses. Trubisky took care of the latter at Memorial Stadium with that 39-yard scamper.
“I didn’t want to run out of bounds,” Trubisky said after the game. “I wanted to finish the run. I felt like I just needed to get hit to really get my feet underneath me and get going. Sometimes you need that just to settle down, get that first pop. It’s not practice; I’ll be able to get hit. I think that just allowed me to settle down. I was just playing in the moment.”
After a ho-hum start to 2016 against Georgia – he avoided any turnovers yet managed only 3.9 yards per attempt – Trubisky completed 19-of-24 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns against Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defensive scheme. His passing ability has never really been in question, though.
The 39-yard keeper not only settled Trubisky down, but it also woke up the UNC offense, and the Illini had no answer. The read option, which the Tar Heels failed to utilize against the Bulldogs, added a layer of complexity to the offensive attack in Champaign. Defensive ends are taught to collapse off the edge to force quarterbacks to keep the ball instead of handing off to the tailback, and Trubisky took advantage, running nine times for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
“As you can see, Mitch Trubisky can run,” running back Elijah Hood said. “I think that caught the defense a little off guard to see him scampering all around the field and scoring touchdowns. That gives them something else to think about and it adds more diversity to the offense. Whenever you’ve got guys hesitating a little bit more, that creates space for playmakers.”
Trubisky’s game week prep included an emphasis in three areas: better footwork in the pocket, better vision down the field and better use of his legs when the situation demanded it. The read option game was a byproduct of the latter, although his scrambling ability was equally as important.
On a 2nd-and-12 early in the second quarter, Trubisky slipped away from a defensive end and fired a 28-yard dart to Bug Howard on the right sideline. Just before halftime, on 2nd-and-14, he again escaped pressure and scrambled right, buying just enough time to toss a delicate pass to Khris Francis for 20 yards down the right sideline.
Plays such as those are demoralizing for a defense doing everything right to get off the field and coming up short.
“He played well tonight,” Fedora said. “He took care of the football. He ran the ball. I think you got to see him run the ball and he ran the ball effectively. I thought he was really into it and sharp and focused the entire night. So yes, that's what I expect from him.”
Trubisky was not perfect – rarely, if ever, does a quarterback deserve such accolades – although his progress from Week 1 to Week 2 was significant, and he performed well enough for UNC to blow out a Power 5 conference opponent on the road.
Sometimes an early collision, a reminder that this is nothing more than a game, is required to avoid paralysis by analysis, particularly at the quarterback position.