UNC lacks clarity at backup quarterback

Mitch Trubisky, green jersey, is the Tar Heels’ clear starter, but weeks into preseason practice there’s no clear answer about who his backup is.
Mitch Trubisky, green jersey, is the Tar Heels’ clear starter, but weeks into preseason practice there’s no clear answer about who his backup is. rwillett@newsobserver.com

There is clarity atop North Carolina’s quarterback depth chart, perhaps more than there has been in years, but beyond that there is a question without an answer, at least for now: Who is the Tar Heels’ backup quarterback?

It’s a question that Larry Feodra, the UNC coach, hopes remains irrelevant. After all, if Mitch Trubisky, the clear starter, remains healthy then it might not matter who his backup is – until, that is, Fedora might find it necessary to give Trubisky a rest late in a game already decided.

But the backup quarterback question can become a lot more relevant, and without any notice. It would become more relevant if Trubisky becomes injured, or if during a game his helmet comes off – forcing him to the sideline for one play – or if, as no one expects will happen, he plays poorly.

And so it’s an important question, perhaps as important as any surrounding the Tar Heels weeks before their season-opening game against Georgia on Sept. 3. Who is the Tar Heels’ backup quarterback? Asked that question after a recent practice, Fedora didn’t hesitate.

“It would be either Caleb Henderson or Nathaniel Elliott,” he said with a touch of dry humor.

And if something happened to the junior Trubisky say, today, that made him unable to play?

“Either Caleb Henderson or Nathaniel Elliott would go,” Fedora said, dryly again. “I tell you what I’m thinking about doing, is putting them both out there right behind the center and you just have to guess which one is going to get the snap.”

Fedora’s comedic routine is well-rehearsed. During the past two seasons, he said similar things about Trubisky and Marquise Williams, both of whom engaged in competitions that Williams eventually won, securing his place as the team’s starter.

Even amid that competition – however much of a competition it actually was, given Williams’ hold on the position the past two years – it was clear that Williams and Trubisky were the Tar Heels’ top two quarterbacks. Now there is no such certainty.

There is Trubisky at the top of the depth chart, the definitive starter. And then there is a question.

Henderson, a third-year sophomore from Burke, Va., appears to be the logical choice to be next in line after Trubisky. Henderson arrived at UNC a heralded prospect and he fits the physical mold – 6-foot-3, 225 pounds – of a prototypical quarterback. He looks the part and is a fast runner, too.

Yet Henderson departed UNC’s spring practice with an increased need to prove himself to the coaching staff. He threw three interceptions during the spring game and, if not for that rough performance, there might not be a question about Trubisky’s backup.

“The spring game kind of hurt me,” Henderson said recently. “I threw three picks.”

I don’t think anybody has really separated (himself) so much. If we had to play tomorrow and somebody had to go, we’d make a decision and put one of them in. But we’ve still got time.

Larry Fedora on Caleb Henderson and Nathaniel Elliott

Meanwhile, Elliott, a left-handed redshirt freshman from Celina, Texas, used the spring game to build his case for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. He isn’t as experienced as Henderson, and Elliott didn’t arrive on campus with some of the accolades that Henderson received, either.

One year ago, Elliott arrived on campus with the understanding that it would be a while before he had a chance to play a significant role. That chance has arrived sooner than he might have expected.

Both Henderson and Elliott know they could be one snap away, one injury away, from leading the Tar Heels’ offense, which set school records a season ago for points and yards per game. Fedora has said the offense can be even more productive this season, given all that returns.

That expectation, though, assumes that Trubisky remains healthy and plays well. There’s no definitive, clear plan beyond him, though Henderson and Elliott are both trying to make their cases to create one.

Henderson said earlier this week that he’s “a completely different player” than he was when he arrived three years ago. He said he’s more focused and, despite those struggles in the spring game, calmer.

“Now that I am more comfortable with it, this is my third year in the offense, I don’t really like to think of things, like think things too seriously,” he said. “If I start taking things way too seriously, I’ll start peppering the ball all over the place and I’ll get in my own head.”

And so he has tried to remain calm amid this competition. Elliott, whose teammates (and Fedora) call him by his full “Nathaniel” as a joke, has relied on his mind, too.

“I think my biggest attribute is my mind,” he said. “All throughout the fall (last year) I was in all those meetings each week for each game, and I tried to just pay as much attention as I could, even though I knew I wasn’t going to get any reps.

“But if I could learn the offense while they’re learning it each week, I could use that to my advantage. And I tried to study as much as I can and that’s the biggest thing, is just the mind. That’s what I try to bring to the table and just know where to go with the ball.”

Henderson and Elliott are splitting time with the second-team offense, just as Williams and Trubisky split time with the first team before each of the past two seasons. At times, Henderson and Elliott have worked briefly with the first team offense, too.

That was the case toward the end of practice on Thursday, when Elliott took over the first team offense during a two-minute drill. Elliott received that chance, Fedora said, “just to see how he was going to react in that situation.”

“I don’t think anybody has really separated (himself) so much,” Fedora said of Henderson and Elliott. “If we had to play tomorrow and somebody had to go, we’d make a decision and put one of them in. But we’ve still got time.”

And so the “or” between Henderson and Elliott remains. It’s right there on the depth chart and in answers to questions about who the Tar Heels’ backup is. Henderson or Elliott, until an answer becomes clear.