There might be a time at some point during the next three and a half months when North Carolina needs Mitch Trubisky, its backup quarterback, to walk off the sideline and onto the field amid tense, difficult circumstances against a formidable opponent.
Saturday night was not one of those times. The Tar Heels' 53-14 victory against N.C. A&T was decided by halftime if not by the end of the first quarter, when UNC led 22-0.
Such easy tests, though, are about preparing for the more difficult ones that are to come. Which is why late in the first quarter UNC coach Larry Fedora told Trubisky to get ready, he was going in.
“I wanted to get him in early,” Fedora said. “I wanted to get some meaningful reps. And I wouldn't want to tell him that he was going so if the situation happens like that in the season, he's prepared and ready to go.”
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Trubisky and Marquise Williams, the fifth-year senior, competed before the 2014 season for the starting quarterback position. The competition continued into the start of the season and they rotated possessions – with Williams receiving most of them – throughout the first half of last season.
The quarterback rotation UNC used a season ago didn't produce spectacular results. Or even mediocre ones. Trubisky, in a rush to prove himself when he entered the game, often appeared as if he was pressing or trying to do too much.
Williams, meanwhile, got off to slow starts in several games last season and the rotation appeared to preclude him from discovering an early rhythm. Eventually, Fedora ceased using the rotation and Williams' role as the starter became more defined.
The rotation returned, though, Saturday. And that it happened one game after Williams threw three interceptions – two in the end zone – during a season-opening defeat against South Carolina leads to the obvious question of whether Fedora is open to continuing the rotation and giving Trubisky more of an opportunity, in games, to prove himself.
Before Trubisky entered Saturday with about one minute left in the first quarter, the conversation with Fedora, Trubisky said, “was short” and “nothing crazy.”
“Mitch, you're going in,” Trubisky said afterward, reciting Fedora's words. “Get ready. Get the plays.”
Trubisky entered the game on UNC's third series – same as he did during the first half of last season. After Williams returned for the Tar Heels' fourth series, Trubisky came back in for the next series.
Williams led the Tar Heels on seven series, four of which ended with touchdowns. Trubisky was the quarterback for five possessions, three of which ended with touchdowns.
Trubisky benefited from short fields – especially on his first two possessions. He entered for the first time with UNC facing a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On his next possession, the Tar Heels began their drive on the Aggies' 21. Both possessions ended in touchdowns.
UNC ran 43 plays for 315 yards with Williams at quarterback. With Trubisky, UNC ran 20 plays for 90 yards. N.C. A&T, a lower-division opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, faced a significant deficit in both talent and depth.
Both quarterbacks, then, did what they should have against over-matched competition. Neither Williams nor Trubisky threw an interception. Both showed off their running ability – Williams on an 18-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and Trubisky on a 35-yard touchdown run not long after.
“I thought all of our quarterbacks played well,” Fedora said, referring to Williams, Trubisky and Caleb Henderson, a redshirt freshman who played UNC's final offensive series.
Fedora didn't let Williams or Trubisky know beforehand that they'd share time on Saturday. And so the rotation came as news to Williams, though he said afterward that he wasn't surprised.
“My reaction is I'm not going to have a reaction,” he said. “I'm always up for what's going on next. I'm a team player. It's not about me. It's about trying to get a win under our belt and that's what we did tonight. So whatever helps our team win, that's what we need.”
The quarterback position is more settled now than it was a year ago at this time. Fedora on Saturday said, definitively, that “Marquise is our starter.”
Still, Fedora didn't rule out the possibility that UNC would continue to use Trubisky as it did on Saturday night.
“I don't know,” Fedora said. “I just decided to do that going into this game and we'll see going into the next one. Depends on what's going on.”