Keith Heckendorf spent the past three seasons working at North Carolina as a player development coach – a sort of nebulous position somewhere between a graduate assistant and a full-fledged assistant coach. Rising up the coaching ladder can be a difficult climb.
Then came a break. And another one. Blake Anderson, the Tar Heels' former offensive coordinator, became the head coach at Arkansas State last December, and he hired Heckendorf as his tights ends coach and recruiting coordinator. Not long after, UNC coach Larry Fedora came up with a better offer: come back to Chapel Hill and become the Tar Heels' quarterbacks coach.
Heckendorf, who'd worked with UNC's quarterbacks from 2011-13, accepted. And so here he is, in the middle of the most important position competition at UNC. Marquise Williams, a fourth-year junior, and Mitch Trubisky, a redshirt freshman, have been competing for the starting job since the spring. They have gone back and forth, switching places with the first team offense and competing everywhere from the practice field to the meeting room.
Amid it all, Heckendorf has been there. Nobody on UNC's staff has worked more closely with the Tar Heels' quarterbacks than Heckendorf, who was one of the best NCAA Division II players in the country during his days (2000-03) at St. Cloud State in Minnesota. Heckendorf began his coaching career at Monsinee High School in 2004. Ten years later, he's playing an important role in a competition that could, in some ways, decide the fate of UNC's season.
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Heckendorf spoke with reporters after the Tar Heels' practice on Monday. Here he is, on a variety of topics.
--on dividing work between Williams and Trubisky during practices:
“Right now, we switch them off every day. One's in there on one day with the ones and really, through some of the drills, depending on the rotation, the other one will wind up with the ones … So this team has gotten so used to them going back and forth that sometimes I don't think the other guys on the team know who's in there. It's just the way we've done it through spring ball and through all of fall camp. So it's been very fluid.”
--on the similarities in styles between Williams and Trubisky:
“They both communicate very similarly out on the field, so that you don't notice a difference in snap count or cadence or things of that nature, that could cause some teams problems if you have one guy that does it one way and another guy that does it a completely different way.”
--on how Trubisky and Williams have formed a bond during their competition:
“They have both gotten on the same page, and probably the most gratifying thing through this competition has been those two coming together, and pushing each other. And I think they both now realize that this competition is helping both. And I've seen this transformation through camp where it's two guys that were fierce competitors going at each other every day to still competing, but now helping each other. Now they're friends and they're helping each other get better and that's been real fun.”
--on if there's ideal time line in mind to let Trubisky and Williams know who will start:
“I don't know if there's an ideal. ... I don't know if there's a right or a wrong way to do it. Obviously, we'll all sit down and have a conversation and do what's best for this football team.”
--on the advantages of finalizing the decision a week or so before the first game:
“There's probably more advantages for the guy that isn't named the starter, and taking that first snap so he can prepare his mind. Because right now they're both preparing like they're going to start this ballgame. And that's the mindset we want them to have. They're both going to start studying Liberty once we break camp and that's where their focus is going to be, and they both need to prepare like they're going to take that first snap. One of them will and one of them won't. But the other one's got to be ready to go in at some point in that ballgame and do exactly what he was preparing to do as if he was the starter.”
--on whether he sees the competition extending into the season:
“We've got two good quarterbacks that can help us win. And we feel as a team right now that whichever one's out there, we can win with. That's a good feeling to have as coaches, that we know we've got some depth at a key position in our offense, and we're going to continue to roll that way until we feel otherwise.”
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .