I wrote a story that was published today about North Carolina's strange, early-game quarterback rotation – a rotation that has not led to much success for either Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels' starting quarterback, or Mitch Trubisky, who has replaced Williams on the third series in each of UNC's first three games.
The Tar Heels have already played 25 percent of their regular season games, and there are no shortage of things to question about this team. Like, for instance, whether the defense can improve enough to become average. The quarterback rotation, though, is as worthy a question as any of the rest. The primary question: Why is coach Larry Fedora doing it this way?
Why bring Trubisky, a second-year freshman playing his first season, in on the third possession of every game, regardless of circumstances? Fedora was asked about this earlier this week, at his weekly press conference, and again on Wednesday during the weekly ACC teleconference. Both times, he said he didn't think the rotation hurt the offense.
After all, it's only a series. Williams starts the game and comes out on the third series. Trubisky comes in. And then, after that, Williams comes back. And then, it seems, Fedora will decide – based on factors that aren't all that clear – whether to put Trubisky back in. Trubisky last weekend at ECU came back in for a drive early in the second quarter, then played the fourth quarter amid a blowout.
But the question, again, is why it's preordained for Trubisky to come in on the third series.
This is what Fedora said when he was asked about this on Monday:
“It has been (pre-planned) the past three games. Now, whether or not we'll continue that, I don't know. But every one of those situations was planned. I mean, it wasn't let's throw him out there because of what's happening in the game. It's been a planned situational.”
One of the reasons is obvious enough: playing Trubisky early helps him receive some meaningful experience. He's coming in not late in a blowout victory or defeat, and not for a play here or there, like Williams did, at times, when he backed up Bryn Renner. No, Trubisky is receiving real work in an important, meaningful portion of the game – near the beginning of it. Undoubtedly, that should pay off at some point.
Later on Monday Fedora was asked if there was anything that could happen that would make him deviate from this plan. Like say, for instance, Williams had played really well on the first two drives (I'm making this up, by the way – Fedora wasn't asked the question exactly like this) or, what if the Tar Heels had a lot of momentum?
Would Fedora stick to his plan, under all circumstances, to put Trubisky in on the third series? Fedora left some wiggle room, but he implied that he'd made some sort of promise to Trubisky to play him early on in every game.
“There are things that could happen that take us out of that plan, yeah,” Fedora said. “But yeah, I mean, I don't like telling a kid one thing and then doing something else unless something drastic comes up where there's a reason for it. Then I don't have a problem with it.”
To that point, Williams hasn't done much to distinguish himself early in any of UNC's first three games. So we don't know, really, whether Trubisky would still come in if, say, UNC held a 14-0 lead after its first two drives and Williams had completed all of his attempts and thrown two touchdown passes.
But what we do know is this: The early-game rotation hasn't been successful. Trubisky hasn't played all that well when he's come in on the third series and, when Williams has returned, he has underperformed relative to his play the rest of the time.
Here's what Trubisky has done, in three games, on UNC's third possession:
5-10, 58, 0-1
And here's what Williams has done, in three games, on UNC's fourth possession:
3-8, 15, 0-0
UNC has scored a total of 10 points on these six drives, with the touchdown – a Romar Morris 1-yard run – coming against Liberty. Trubisky's first appearance on Saturday at ECU led to a field goal.
Overall, the offense is averaging 4.39 yards per play on those six drives – nearly a yard worse than UNC's overall average of 5.34 yards per play (which still ranks just 84th nationally).
Trubisky, as I wrote in the story I linked above, acknowledged that he feels a lot of pressure to come in and make something happen when he enters the game. He's putting a lot of pressure on himself, it sounds like. Williams, meanwhile, has been careful not to criticize this setup, but how could it not affect his rhythm?
It's clear by now that neither Williams nor Trubisky separated themselves much in the preseason. They competed for the starting job and Williams won out not necessarily because of how well he played, but because, probably (I say “probably” because we don't get to see anything in the preseason), he's older and more experienced, and because he has helped this team win games. And because, evidently, Trubisky just isn't ready.
And so Williams is the starter. The clear-cut, definitive starter, Fedora said earlier this week.
“No doubt about it,” Fedora said.
It's a strange thing, then. UNC led ECU 10-7 early in the first quarter on Saturday. The Tar Heels had a chance, with a touchdown, to take early control of the game. Wouldn't you want your starting quarterback in the game at that moment, to maximize the chance for a successful drive? It happened to be UNC's third offensive series, though, so Trubisky entered and Williams watched from the sideline.