The attention surrounding Mitch Trubisky began to build early last October, in the days and weeks after he helped lead North Carolina to dramatic, last-second comeback victories against Pittsburgh and Florida State. That’s when the hype started to build.
At the time, few college quarterbacks were playing as well as Trubisky. During his first five games this season – his first five as the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback, after he’d waited years for the opportunity – Trubisky completed 76 percent of his attempts for 1,711 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions.
People began to take notice. After Trubisky’s fifth college start, a 37-35 victory at Florida State won on Nick Weiler’s 54-yard field goal as time expired, at least one NFL draft analyst, the venerable Mel Kiper Jr., proclaimed Trubisky to the best NFL draft-eligible quarterback in the country.
And so it began. In the months that followed, the hype accumulated. Even while his efficiency declined, slightly, Trubisky became a regular character in NFL mock drafts. In December the New York Daily News featured him on its back cover, reporting that the hometown Jets were interested in drafting Trubisky.
Other teams reportedly developed high interest in Trubisky, too: The Cleveland Browns, who play not far from Trubisky’s hometown of Mentor, Ohio; The Chicago Bears; The San Francisco 49ers. Essentially, the list of Trubisky’s possible suitors included any NFL team in need of a quarterback.
And so when Trubisky earlier this week announced his eligibility for the NFL draft, it wasn’t a surprise in the least. For months now it appeared certain that he’d become a first-round selection if he chose to leave school. An opportunity to become an NFL starter, and a millionaire, awaited.
The reality, though, is that Trubisky’s decision proved far more difficult than it might have seemed on the outside. After the Tar Heels ended a disappointing 8-5 season with a 25-23 loss against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, Trubisky said he intended to escape all of the speculation about his future.
He said he wanted time to examine his options and his evaluate his best course. They weren’t just empty words. After that defeat in El Paso, Texas, Trubisky returned home to Ohio and spent days at a crossroads. One direction led back to Chapel Hill for his senior season. Another to the NFL.
Trubisky said he tried to “clear his mind.” He tried not to think about “much of anything,” he said, amid thoughts of everything: Would his long-term development be best served by returning for his senior season at UNC? Could he really pass up the opportunity before him?
For a while, Trubisky acknowledged he’d gone back and forth. He’d wake up one morning and think that he was in the midst of his final days at UNC. The next morning he’d wake up with a different thought. That’s how it went, for weeks before the end of his junior season.
Back home after the loss in the Sun Bowl it wasn’t any different. At least not at first.
“My mom was kind of getting annoyed,” Trubisky said earlier this week. “And she was like, ‘All right, you’ve got to make a decision.’”
His mom’s directive prompted Trubisky to hasten his process. He spent time speaking with his old coach at Mentor High, Steve Trivisonno. He sought out his high school position coach, Nes Janiak. Trubisky talked with Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, and Keith Heckendorf, the Tar Heels quarterbacks coach.
At UNC, the uncertainty surrounding the 6-3, 220-pound Trubisky’s future left Fedora and the football program in some degree of limbo. With Trubisky back next season, the rebuilding project ahead of Fedora would have been less daunting. Now UNC will have to replace its starting quarterback, its top three running backs and its three best wide receivers.
Most of those departures could have been anticipated. Receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins were all seniors, as was running back T.J. Logan. After Elijah Hood’s All-ACC sophomore season in 2015, his recent decision to enter the NFL draft couldn’t have been surprising, either, even though it came after he originally announced he’d be returning to school.
Trubisky was different. Before the start of his junior season, the possibility of Trubisky leaving early to enter the NFL draft seemed unlikely. It appeared to be much more probable then, in August, that Trubisky was about to begin a two-season run as the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback. And then came those first five games, with Trubisky throwing for more than 400 yards in three of them.
Fedora, the UNC coach, said he attempted to stay out of Trubisky’s decision-making process. At least publicly, Fedora attempted to describe his involvement as that of a detached observer, with no rooting interest. Asked in December to make his case for why Trubisky should return to school for his senior season, despite the lofty draft projections, Fedora declined the exercise.
“I don’t want to influence it, either way,” Fedora said. “That’s really important to me, is that first of all, for him to know that he’s not going to disappoint me either way. I want what’s best for him. And that’s very important to me. And so I’m very careful in what I say when we’re talking, he and I are talking, because I don’t want to influence him one way or the other.
“I don’t want that responsibility. That is strictly his and his family’s decision, and my job is to make sure and give him as much information as possible so that he can make a good educated decision, and I can tell you, he’s got a very thorough process that he’s going through.”
It was a process that gained momentum last week. Trubisky said he “did a lot of research” about his so-called draft stock. He tried to evaluate how his accomplishments in one season as a college starter compared to other recent quarterback prospects who were drafted. Then he evaluated how those prospects had fared in the NFL.
Even then, the decision wasn’t so clear. Trubisky acknowledged his desire to return.
“I wanted to come back,” he said.
And yet his process had led him to a different conclusion: He had to go. Now was the time.
Trubisky reached the decision, at last, last Friday. He discussed it with members of his family, who supported the move, and then he decided to sleep on it “for a couple of days.” Over and over earlier this week, when he spoke with reporters during a teleconference, Trubisky said he came to the conclusion that entering the draft “is what it feels like I have to do.”
There were the projections, which make it clear that Trubisky, as it stands now, is a coveted prospect. Two recent NFL draft projections have Trubisky being selected as high as second overall. Another has him going to the Jets with the sixth pick. Another to the Browns, his hometown team, a little later in the first round, after a trade.
If any one of those projections turns into reality, Trubisky could set his financial future with a few pen strokes of his signature. Then will come the more difficult part – proving that he’s ready for the NFL after starting for only one season at UNC.
Trubisky, who will train in California, said he wants to improve his footwork. He needs to become more adept with the terminology of NFL offenses. It will be a process, too, to learn how to dissect an NFL defense, and the speed he’ll encounter.
“I know I could have came back to North Carolina and it would have prepared me and got me ready for next year,” Trubisky said. “But I feel like since this opportunity is here, the best opportunity for my career is to really take the next step and develop and get ready for the NFL this way.”
Trubisky spent last weekend making sure he was sure. He spoke with Fedora and the UNC coaching staff on Monday, and then it became official on Tuesday. After weeks and weeks of going back and forth, of researching and evaluating, of seeking advice, Trubisky had made up his mind.