North Carolina

Trubisky time finally arrives at UNC

North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) runs the offense on the first day of practice for the Tar Heels at Navy Field on Friday, August 5, 2016 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) runs the offense on the first day of practice for the Tar Heels at Navy Field on Friday, August 5, 2016 in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Of all the stories Ryan Switzer could tell about Mitch Trubisky, his roommate and one of his closest friends, this one involves youthful dreams and comes with a soundtrack, an instrumental song from a TV show playing softly in the background.

“You’ve seen ‘Friday Night Lights,’ right?” Switzer asks, setting the scene.

The story Switzer is telling is from the spring after his freshman season, almost three years ago, and he’s back in the dorm he shared with Trubisky, the North Carolina quarterback.

And this is where the story becomes a bit sappy, perhaps, but maybe it’s understandable. Switzer has a softer side, after all, and has been known to extol the artistic quality of ‘Frozen,’ both the movie and the musical on ice. But back to that moment with Trubisky.

“We were sitting in his room and there’s a song that’s called ‘Your Hand in Mine,’ and it’s like an instrumental (song),” Switzer said. “And I promise you, you can’t put that song on without going into a deep mental state. …

“We were talking, and it was a heartfelt conversation, and I remember just throwing that song on through a little speaker. And we would just sit in there, and we would envision how we wanted our future to go.”

Switzer’s a senior at North Carolina now, a receiver who has been an important part of the Tar Heels’ offense for the past three years.

His vision looked something like the past two years have looked: a prominent role, a large number of highlights and accolades, and enough punt returns for touchdowns to put him in a position to break the national record this season.

And then there was Trubisky’s vision. It did not include long stretches of time spent on the sideline, watching. It did not include continuing to serve, for years, as a backup, and it did not include having to wait – and wait – for a chance that, after three seasons, has finally arrived.

UNC began preseason practice on Friday with Trubisky the unquestioned starting quarterback. Just as he envisioned years ago, before the long wait and all the watching and waiting that he never saw coming.

Trubisky quarterback of tomorrow

Trubisky believed then what a lot of freshman college football players believe: that he could play immediately, and that he would play. And he believed that if he didn’t play a significant role his first season then, well, he surely would during his second.

“I thought I was going to maybe come in and compete right away,” Trubisky says now, in his fourth year in Chapel Hill. “Come in, compete with Bryn (Renner) … compete and then hopefully win the job my redshirt freshman year.”

That was the hope then, the vision, and while it’s not uncommon for freshmen to believe such things, it is uncommon for them to come to campus with the kind of credentials Trubisky brought. He arrived at UNC among the most heralded recruits in the Tar Heels’ 2013 incoming class.

When Larry Fedora became UNC’s head coach in 2012, he and his staff rushed to cobble together a recruiting class. The class was made up in part of players that stuck with the program through the tumult of a coaching change and an NCAA investigation, and others who came to play for Fedora.

In those first hectic months, though, Fedora took time to plan for the future, and for the next class. And when Fedora watched Trubisky, one of the best high school players in Ohio, Fedora saw the future, the Tar Heels’ quarterback of tomorrow.

Only, tomorrow has taken far longer to arrive than Trubisky ever could have imagined. Trubisky enrolled early at UNC and practiced with the team in the spring of 2013. At quarterback, UNC had Renner, the incoming Trubisky and not much else.

Marquise Williams, who’d served as Renner’s backup in 2012, was out of school during the spring of 2013 while he served an academic suspension. Williams worked his way back into school and started the past two seasons. But it’s not difficult to understand how Trubisky, back in 2013, saw a clear path to early playing time, and success.

A long wait began instead. When Renner endured a season-ending injury in 2013, Trubisky says now, the coaching staff considered pulling his redshirt and playing Trubisky during the final five games. Instead he remained on the sideline.

Before the 2014 season, Williams and Trubisky competed for the starting job. It went to Williams, though Fedora tried an awkward rotation that eventually ended with Trubisky spending more time on the sideline. By the start of last season Trubisky’s role was clear. He was the backup.

“The toughest part about it is I’m just a really fierce competitor,” Trubisky says. “And so I felt like I lost, even though I really didn’t. I felt like I lost, and I just wanted to be out there. And the hardest thing was when the team would lose, I couldn’t even help my team.”

Talk of transferring

The 2014 season was the most difficult. For Trubisky. For the entire team.

The early-season quarterback rotation, with Trubisky entering on the third offensive series, proved to be a dud. UNC’s defense set school records for futility. The losses piled up, and often in embarrassing fashion – humiliating defeats at East Carolina and at Miami and at home against N.C. State.

And all the while, Trubisky either played sparingly or stood witness to the carnage. Mr. Football in Ohio his senior season at Mentor High to this – a backup on a team headed to a consolation bowl game in Detroit, where UNC completed a 6-7 season with a debacle of a loss against Rutgers.

Back in their apartment, Trubisky and Switzer spent many late nights venting and counseling each other. They wondered what had happened to everything they’d talked about the year before, those visions that played over a soundtrack from “Friday Night Lights.”

“We used to sit in our room after a loss and we’d be like, ‘Dude, what are we doing?’” Trubisky says. “We have way too much talent to be getting whupped like this. Like, this is embarrassing.

“And there’d be talk – it would just be talk – like, dude, we’ve got to transfer, like this might not be for us. Natural thoughts when you’re losing.”

In the darkest moments, Switzer might have complained about how he wasn’t getting the ball enough. To which Trubisky says he’d reply: “You’re not getting the ball? I’m not playing.”

At least not nearly as often as he thought he would. After the quarterback rotation ended, Trubisky continued to play in nearly every game but his time came in small, brief spurts.

At Virginia he came in late in the game, after Williams left briefly, and threw a game-winning touchdown pass. In that defeat against N.C. State, the result long decided, Trubisky guided a late touchdown drive.

Meaningless to the final score but meaningful to him, in that particular moment. Up until then, Trubisky said, he’d allowed his focus to wane.

“When I wasn’t splitting time and wasn’t playing at all, I was like – I wouldn’t say depressed – but I just kind of took a back seat, wasn’t working as hard as I probably should have,” Trubisky said. “Wasn’t preparing as much, because I wasn’t playing. But then it was just – something went off.”

Looking back now, Trubisky describes the 2014 trip to Detroit and the Quick Lane Bowl as “a horrible experience.” And for the team it was – an embarrassing season-ending defeat after which players questioned everything from the Tar Heels’ chemistry to the program’s direction.

And yet, Trubisky says, that miserable experience represented the start of a different approach. Instead of moping about his playing time, or about the team’s struggles, or about anything else, he says he focused on putting himself in a position to succeed if an opportunity arose.

“That’s what I did all last year,” he says. “I wasn’t named the guy; so what? I helped my team in any aspect I could. Some days I would still be upset about it, but I still kept the team first.”

And he waited. There was more of that, too.

Being named starter

Last season wasn’t as difficult as the one before. The wait provided its own unique challenge, though, and one that was perhaps more difficult than any defense Trubisky could have faced.

“Time can make the most confident man wonder,” Switzer says, thinking back to some of those late-night conversations he has shared with his friend and roommate. “And it certainly did with him, having to wait as long as he did.

“He was unsure about himself, if he was even good enough to play. You’re talking about the guy who won Mr. Football in Ohio was doubting whether he could even continue to play or not. But he’s been loyal through the whole thing.”

After last season, Switzer thought about entering the NFL draft. One of the reasons he returned was Trubisky. Fedora believes the offense can be better than it was a season ago, when UNC set school records in points per game and yards per game.

People wonder how it’s going to be different now with Trubisky. Williams could be an erratic passer at times, but he won over his teammates with his toughness, and his positivity last year seemed contagious. Williams could run, too – usually out of trouble but sometimes right into it.

Still, Fedora says, “I’m going to tell you, Mitch can run. All right. He can run. I mean, if those two guys got in a race, I don’t know who would be the fastest. They can both run.”

Fedora tried to play coy early in spring practice by not naming Trubisky the starter. By the end of it, Fedora announced the obvious – that Trubisky was the guy – and when Fedora did, he says, “It was like, OK, it’s go time.”

“There’s not a guy on our offense or defense that will tell you they’re worried about Mitch Trubisky.”

In his fourth year at UNC, there’s little concern about Trubisky’s grasp of Fedora’s offense. The basic principles of the offense will remain the same but it will be different, too, now that Trubisky is the starter.

How different isn’t exactly clear. The passing game figures to play a more prominent role, though.

“A blind eye can see that Mitch is kind of a more comfortable passer than what we’ve had, and that we may drop back more without the play-action,” Switzer says. “A lot of things are different. But I think everybody knows it would be a crime not to utilize Mitch’s arm.”

The nuts and bolts mechanics of the offense might be the least challenging part of Trubisky’s new role. There’s a lot of other stuff that comes with being a starting quarterback – the leadership responsibilities and the media obligations and the constant awareness of always needing to be “on.”

Trubisky says the coaches – Fedora and quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf – have told him to “be the hammer.” Trubisky likes the phrase but isn’t sure how to explain it. It means being a stronger leader, and exerting an energy and, yes, being more vocal, which is perhaps most difficult of all for him.

“I’m kind of a talkative guy,” he says, “but I’m not like a big speech kind of guy.”

He says he’s working on being louder and more vocal. He has had to learn, just like he had to learn how to wait for a turn that has arrived, finally.

Now it’s here. Trubisky says he’s been “more anxious than ever” during these final days and weeks approaching the reality of what he’d always envisioned.

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