One of the central questions surrounding Mitch Trubisky during the draft process — and since the Bears picked him second overall Thursday night — has been: Why didn’t he win the starting job at North Carolina earlier?
Tar Heels quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf said that question's answer is “simple.”
Marquise Williams, who started over Trubisky in 2014 and 2015, wasn’t much of a pro prospect and failed to stick on an NFL roster after going undrafted last year. But consider this timeline:
2013: Trubisky arrives on campus, and the plan is to redshirt him. North Carolina begins the season 1-5 before fifth-year senior quarterback Bryn Renner suffers a season-ending injury. The decision is made to preserve Trubisky’s redshirt and start Williams, who leads North Carolina to five consecutive wins and a victory over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
2014: Riding that second-half surge, Williams is solidly North Carolina’s quarterback. While the Tar Heels go 6-7, Williams does well in plenty of those losses (like throwing for 303 yards and rushing for 132 in a gouging of Notre Dame’s defense). Trubisky, in his first college action, completes 53.8 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and four interceptions.
2015: North Carolina goes 11-1 in the regular season, comes close to beating Clemson in the ACC title game and finishes with its highest win total since 1997. While Trubisky completed 85 percent of his passes and threw six touchdowns against no interceptions, Williams throws for 3,068 yards with 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and rushes for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“That success we had as a team with Marquise made it hard for us to pull him out of the lineup,” Heckendorf said. “And I think if (Williams’ success in 2013) hadn’t happened, there may be a completely different conversation. It was not for a lack of talent, it was not because he wasn’t capable, but it’s hard to take a guy who had the success — not only as the team winning but individually — as Marquise had and put him on the bench for an unproven commodity.”
It wasn’t that North Carolina coaches didn’t know what they had in Trubisky, who impressed Heckendorf when he had those limited chances in 2014 and 2015.
“Typically, you look across the country, you put your backup quarterback in and you hand it off,” Heckendorf said. “… Every time we put him in there, we were dialing up throws to let him do what he did best. And I think that showed the confidence that (offensive coordinator Seth Littrell) had in him as well as everybody on our staff.”
Trubisky felt like he deserved to be North Carolina’s starting quarterback, but it would’ve been a bold change for Larry Fedora to make in Year 3 or Year 4 of his tenure in Chapel Hill, which are generally of the most important seasons for the longevity of a college football coach.
A positive view of the future
With Ryan Pace declaring the Bears will not have a quarterback competition in 2017, Trubisky is back to where he was his first three years at North Carolina.
During those three years, Heckendorf said Trubisky wasn't combative or despondent about his situation, and did well to develop without much playing time on Saturdays.
"He picks things up very quickly," Heckendorf said. "He’s like a sponge. He welcomed that criticism and he would work to go change it. And typically he didn’t make the same mistake twice, which says a lot about him and how he goes about his approach to getting better. He was great to coach."
Trubisky on Friday offered a glass-half-full assessment of his time on the bench at North Carolina as he returns to a No. 2 role in Chicago.
“I think that experience helps me a lot for this situation,” Trubisky said. “I know how to learn behind a guy. I’m excited to learn behind Mike (Glennon). “I know how to get better when I’m not getting the starting reps or I’m not the starter. I’m just going to continue to work hard, learn from other guys, pick up as much information as possible. I’m very excited to learn from these coaches and other quarterbacks and players.”