In the span of 236 days, Mitch Trubisky went from being a nervous college quarterback making his first start at North Carolina to a prized commodity, a professional prospect that NFL teams came to covet and consider capable of being the face of their franchise.
His journey from relative unknown to sure-thing, first-round NFL draft pick ended on Thursday night in Philadelphia, where the Chicago Bears selected Trubisky with the No. 2 overall selection. Trubisky became the 24th UNC player to be selected in the first round, but its first quarterback to be drafted that highly.
And so ended one unlikely story while Trubisky’s next chapter began. In the hours before the draft on Thursday, reports emerged that the Cleveland Browns might take Trubisky with the No. 1 overall pick. Such speculation, though, turned out to be typical draft-day misinformation.
Trubisky didn’t have to wait long, though. The Bears secured the No. 2 pick in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, and then took Trubisky off the board. He was the first quarterback selected.
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Trubisky’s draft wait was considerably shorter than his wait to earn the starting job at UNC. He waited for years at UNC before he started his first college game in early September, a defeat against Georgia at the Georgia Dome. After it, Trubisky said he’d experienced “maybe just some first game jitters.” For so long, he’d had to wait his turn.
Trubisky arrived at UNC in 2013 as a heralded prospect from Mentor High in Ohio. He was the quarterback that UNC coach Larry Fedora and Blake Anderson, then the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator, identified as the future of UNC’s offense.
It took longer than expected, though, for Trubisky to emerge as the starter. He sat out his first season, a redshirt year. Then he spent two seasons backing up Marquise Williams, who in 2015 led UNC to the Coastal Division championship and an 11-win season, one of the best in school history.
All the while, Trubisky wondered when his chance might come. He tried to stay ready.
And when it arrived, at last, he thrived. After the underwhelming debut against Georgia – Trubisky threw for 156 yards, his second-fewest of the season, and no touchdowns – he warmed up in victories against Illinois and James Madison and then was at his best against Pittsburgh and Florida State.
In those games, both dramatic UNC victories in which Trubisky helped lead late comebacks, he threw for a combined 885 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Nationally, Trubisky had arrived. The talking heads, the draft analysts and the mock draft specialists, had taken notice.
Trubisky decided to enter the draft not long after UNC ended the season with a 25-23 defeat against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. He left after one of the finest seasons any quarterback had ever had at UNC: 3,748 yards passing, a 68 percent completion rate, 30 touchdown passes, six interceptions.
And yet entering the draft the number most associated with Trubisky was 13 – the number of college games he started. Everywhere he went in the weeks and months leading into the draft, Trubisky had to answer questions about why he didn’t start sooner, about what took him so long.
“I just said I had a different journey,” Trubisky said, answering the question again last month at UNC’s pro day. “Obviously me and Marquise competed here. I felt like I won the job and I should’ve been the quarterback. But Coach Fedora, it was his decision, he did what he thought was best for the team.”
Asked the same question the same day last month, Fedora said he chose Williams as the starter in part to preserve the team’s chemistry. Williams is remembered, among other things, for his infectiously positive persona, and his affability. Trubisky, meanwhile, is quieter, more stoic.
Williams’ leadership helped guide UNC to one of its best seasons in school history. Still, Fedora’s decision to start Williams over Trubisky for two seasons meant, ultimately, that Trubisky, perhaps the most talented quarterback in school history, only started for one season.
“Whether he had 13 starts or whether he had 26 starts, whatever it is, I mean, he is who he is, and I’m proud of who he’s become and the quarterback he’s developed into,” Fedora said earlier this week. “And I’m not sure that I would have done things any differently with it because it’s made him who he is. He’s just a very gifted and very talented young man.”
The Bears agreed, evidently. Trubisky will enter a situation in Chicago in which he could have an opportunity to adjust to the NFL before needing to start. The Bears signed Mike Glennon, the former N.C. State quarterback, to a three-year contract last month.
Trubisky became the fourth UNC player to be selected second overall, and first since Julius Peppers in 2002. Lawrence Taylor (1981) and Ken Willard (1965) were the others.
Fedora attended the draft on Thursday night, and was there to watch Trubisky hear his name called. So were a few of Trubisky’s UNC teammates: receiver Austin Proehl, linebacker Cole Holcomb and tight end Brandon Fritts, who also played at Mentor High alongside Trubisky.
The moment came earlier than anticipated, perhaps. Trubisky didn’t need to wait long. Less than a year after nervously making his first college start, he’d fulfilled a dream of becoming a first-round NFL draft pick.