Why didn't Mitch Trubisky play earlier? For UNC, there was a 'simple' explanation

Why didn't Mitch Trubisky play earlier? For UNC, there was a 'simple' explanation

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.” 

4 reasons to feel optimistic about the Bears as training camp marches on

4 reasons to feel optimistic about the Bears as training camp marches on

The Chicago Bears' first padded practice of training camp won't happen until August 16, at the earliest, because of the rules in place to combat a league-wide outbreak of COVID-19. As a result, Bears players have been limited to offseason-like sessions in t-shirts and shorts in an effort to prepare for a 2020 season that will begin with a very different set of expectations than last year.

The Bears' 2019 season started with Super Bowl aspirations. After a 12-4 campaign in 2018 that was led by a ferocious defense, those aspirations were warranted. But 2019 didn't turn out as expected; the Bears dropped to 8-8, regressed on offense and took a step back on defense too.

Still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Chicago for this season. Here are four of them.

Nick Foles will stabilize the quarterback position

Bears fans want Mitch Trubisky to win the team's quarterback competition, and it's easy to understand why. If he loses, he'll officially be a massive (teetering on historic) bust of a second overall pick, and even if Foles is competent behind center, Chicago will be set back many years in their quest for a Super Bowl because of Trubisky's failure.

But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that tomorrow isn't promised to anyone. So, for this season, for 2020? Foles will at worst provide the Bears with a chance to make a deep playoff run if he wins the job or is forced into the lineup because of a struggling Trubisky. 

Foles isn't a world-beater, but he is a Super Bowl winner who's established himself as one of the more dependable playoff performers in recent seasons. Bears fans know this personally; Foles came into Chicago and beat the Bears in the 2018 wild card round.

Return of the (Khalil) Mack

Mack ended last season with 8.5 sacks, which by mortal standards would be a solid season. But Mack isn't a mortal edge rusher, so of course, his year was viewed as a disappointment. Still, Mack was the Bears' third-highest-graded defender, per Pro Football Focus, at 86.2. 

Buckle up, Bears fans. Mack is about to go off in 2020.

Ryan Pace made a calculated decision to move on from Leonard Floyd, the team's first-round pick in 2016, and added Robert Quinn in free agency to be the team's new 'Robin' to Mack's 'Batman.' He's a qualified sidekick after registering 11.5 sacks for the Cowboys in 2019.

There's also the healthy return of Akiem Hicks that should help ease the pressure off Mack, too. 

Are 15 sacks a realistic possibility for No. 52 in 2020? Absolutely.

"He's training like I have never seen anybody train before," linebackers coach Ted Monachino said in June. "Motivation is not an issue with Khalil -- never has been. But what I'll tell you is that he has approached this offseason with something to prove, and that's something that I think we all can be encouraged by. I think that that's something that's exciting, when a player of his caliber approaches his work the way he has approached it."

Allen Robinson is still here

The Bears still have time to extend Robinson's contract, something that many fans assumed would be a priority for Pace and the front office this offseason. COVID-19 impacted (and continues to impact) all business decisions, however, and A-Rob's new deal is no exception. 

Whether the Bears strike a new deal with him or not, we know one thing for sure: Robinson will again be Chicago's go-to-guy in the passing game and will challenge for 100 catches for a second-straight season. And remember this: if the Bears don't get a new deal done by the time the season rolls around, Robinson will have even more motivation to show out in 2020. That's a scary thought.

Robinson was the Bears' best player, week in and week out, in 2019. Now, with a more accurate quarterback throwing to him in 2020 (whoever wins the QB competition will be judged, in part, on accuracy, per QB coach John DeFilippo), there may not be a ceiling on A-Rob's production. Will he top his 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season from 2015? 

Offensive line isn't as bad as you think

Ok, sure, the Bears' offensive line wasn't good in 2019. But the entire team regressed, and the O-line was just one part of it. 

Think back to the start of last season, though. Chicago's offensive line was considered one of the best units in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears' line as the ninth-best in the NFL entering 2019.

The addition of Germain Ifedi at right guard will be more significant than the one-year contract he signed in free agency. He's an upgrade over Kyle Long (at least, the end-of-career Long), and the continued growth of James Daniels (left guard) and Cody Whitehair (center) could give the Bears an extremely underrated interior trio.

Bobby Massie and Charles Leno are a quality duo at offensive tackle, too.

The most important change this offseason was the hiring of Juan Castillo as the offensive line coach. He'll get this group playing up to their ceiling again, which will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense in 2020.


3 things 2020 Bears will need to repeat 2018’s success

3 things 2020 Bears will need to repeat 2018’s success

The first two years of the Matt Nagy era can be boiled down to this: First, a tremendously fun year in which the Bears blew past expectations; and second, a tremendously un-fun year in which the Bears fell short of expectations.

So what will 2020 be closer to: The unbridled joy of 2018 (until the last kick of the wild card round), or the numbing disappointment of 2019 (despite still winning eight games)?

To answer that question, we should start by laying out some expectations for 2020. Broadly: The Bears should compete for a spot in an expanded seven-team playoff field. More narrowly: The Bears’ offense should be, at worst, league-average – about where it was in 2018. And the defense, led by a mauling pass rush, should be one of the best in the NFL even without Eddie Goldman.

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But how do the Bears get 2020 to feel more like 2018 than 2019? Here are three key factors:

The tight end question

Trey Burton did not miss a game in 2018’s regular season, and the Bears’ offense was better because of it. While Burton’s numbers weren’t eye-popping (54 catches, 569 yards, 6 TDs) his steadiness at the “U” tight end spot allowed the Bears’ offense to create mismatches, especially with Tarik Cohen.

Burton never was healthy last year, playing poorly in eight games before landing on injured reserve. The Bears didn’t have quality depth behind Burton, and the “Y” spot was a disaster. The lack of any good tight end play wasn’t the only reason why the Bears’ offense cratered in 2019, but it might’ve been the biggest reason.

The starting point to the Bears’ offense in 2020 is, certainly, figuring out who’s playing quarterback. But the Bears need Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet and Demetrius Harris to be the fixes their tight end room sorely needs. Just average play from those guys will help the Bears’ offense be closer to what it was in 2018 (which, again, was merely good enough), if not better.

MORE: Where Cole Kmet stands as Bears get to know their rookies

And if the tight end room is a disaster again? It might not matter who starts at quarterback.

Good luck and/or good depth

The 2018 Bears were incredibly lucky in dodging significant injuries early on. Adam Shaheen began the year on IR but returned in November; Kyle Long went on IR after Week 8 and came back Week 17. Depth pieces like Sam Acho and Dion Sims were lost, sure, but the Bears did well to make their absences footnotes to the season.

Even when slot corner Bryce Callahan was injured in Week 14, veteran special teamer Sherrick McManis did incredibly well in his place. Eddie Jackson’s season-ending injury in Week 15 was the most costly, as the Bears missed him in that wild card game against Foles and the Eagles.

But overall, the Bears were both lucky in terms of staying healthy and good in terms of replacing those injured guys in 2018.

The Bears saw some depth shine in 2019 – specifically defensive lineman Nick Williams and inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski – but even still, the defense struggled to dominate without Hicks on the field. And the aforementioned tight end position was a disaster without a healthy Burton. Long never was right, and the offensive line without him (or veteran backup Ted Larsen) never was either. Taylor Gabriel’s off-and-on availability due to multiple concussions hampered the offense, too.

2020 inevitably will be a year of attrition not only for the Bears, but for the entire NFL. In addition to avoiding football injuries before and during the season, teams will have to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities. Training and personal responsibility can go a long way in avoiding injuries and illness, but it’ll take a lot of luck, too, for teams to stay mostly healthy.

MORE: Fragility of 2020 season constantly on Bears players' minds

The teams with the best depth will have the best chance of making the playoffs. Will the Bears be among that group? Maybe. But a shortage of draft picks in recent years might be costly. We’ll see.

Betting on pressure

The Bears had one of the best defenses of the last decade in 2018 because of, first and foremost, outstanding coverage from its secondary. The ability of Fuller/Jackson/Callahan/Adrian Amos/Prince Amukamara to disguise their coverages confused most opposing offenses, who by the way also had to deal with Hicks pushing the pocket and Mack marauding off the edge. Hicks and Goldman opened up gaps for Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to snuff out any attempt at establishing the run. It was a perfect formula.

The 2019 Bears’ defense took a step back not only because Vic Fangio (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) left for Denver, but because of player attrition, too. Last year’s defense was good, but not great.

The formula for the 2020 Bears’ defense won’t be the same as it was in 2018, though. The signing of Robert Quinn, coupled with jettisoning Leonard Floyd, hints at a defense predicated on a dominant pass rush. Holes in the secondary were addressed on the cheap, be it with Jaylon Johnson or Tashaun Gipson.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A trio of Mack/Hicks/Quinn seems impossible to contain. If the Bears’ defense re-emerges as one of the best in the NFL, it’ll be because those three guys lead the way in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.