Mitchell Trubisky thought he deserved to be North Carolina’s starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2014 but was told Marquise Williams would be the full-time starter. So quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf sat down Trubisky to discuss the future.
“I pulled out a picture of the Cleveland quarterback jersey with about 20 names on it,” Heckendorf told The Chronicle-Telegram in a phone interview. “I said, ‘Someday, Mitch, you’re going to break the curse. That’s what you’re working toward.’
“That was always his goal, always his dream. He worked with that mentality even when he wasn’t the starting quarterback, he was perfecting his craft for beyond Carolina. Now I see him in that position. The Browns do have the top pick, he’s arguably the top quarterback in the draft. It’s a pretty neat deal.”
The infamous jersey has grown to 26 starting quarterbacks since 1999. Trubisky, a Mentor native, was 5 years old when the Browns returned and grew up a fan despite all the losing.
They’re connected again.
The Browns considered taking him with the No. 1 pick and reportedly haven’t ruled it out. Even if they go with Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, as expected, that doesn’t eliminate Trubisky. The Browns could hope he’s available at No. 12 or trade up to guarantee getting him.
The hometown kid trying to save his favorite franchise is a great story — Bernie Kosar is still beloved for wanting to be here then winning 30 years ago — but it comes with expectations that can be crushing.
“It would certainly be a lot to deal with playing for your hometown team,” ESPN’s Jon Gruden said on a conference call.
“I think he’ll be able to handle that,” Mentor High School coach Steve Trivisonno told The Chronicle. “If he does stay home, he’d be surrounded by the whole community. Most importantly, he’d be surrounded by family.
“Maybe it’s time the Browns need that, a guy to come in, be that guy, turn that around. I believe he is.”
At the scouting combine in March, Trubisky said the pressure he places upon himself is greater than any external forces. Trivisonno said he’s “been waiting for” the opportunity to rescue the Browns.
“Of all those guys (in the draft), none of them has what he has,” Trivisonno said. “And I don’t think it’s close. If he started as a junior and senior, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’d be over. He’d be the No. 1 pick. They probably would’ve announced it and would be printing jerseys.”
One year and wonder
The second year as a starter never came because Trubisky entered the draft after his junior season and only 13 starts. The decision makes sense because he appears a lock to go in the first round and could be the first quarterback selected, but it created the persistent questions in his scouting report.
Why wasn’t he good enough to start before 2016? And are 13 starts enough to accurately judge what type of NFL quarterback he’ll be?
Heckendorf said there was a lot of debate over whom to start before coach Larry Fedora went with Williams.
“It’s easy to look back and second-guess,” Heckendorf said.
“I wasn’t given the spot even though I thought I was the better quarterback deep down and I knew I could do the same things if not better and help our team,” Trubisky said. “But it wasn’t my call. It was out of my control.”
Heckendorf said the coaches expected to have Trubisky start for two seasons, but he completed 68.2 percent and threw for 3,748 yards with 30 touchdowns and six interceptions in the fall and decided to ride the momentum. The choice made life harder for NFL talent evaluators.
“Certainly, you’d like to be able to look back on as many games as you can and it’s no mystery that Mitch hasn’t played in a lot of them,” Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said last week.
“Do the 13 starts concern me? Yes, they do,” Gruden said. “He’s still a big mystery to a lot of people in this draft. It’s going to be very interesting to see how high he goes. A year from now Trubisky would definitely be a high (first-round pick).”
Trubisky counters the 13-starts questions by pointing out he played in 30 games. He also threw 571 passes, nearly as many as Carson Wentz had in his North Dakota State career before he was drafted No. 2 last year.
Although Trubisky spent too much time on the sideline for his liking, the way he handled it speaks volumes about his character. He didn’t transfer like so many backup quarterbacks in today’s game.
“When his number wasn’t called, he went to work,” Heckendorf said. “‘OK, I’m going to show you every day I should be the starter.’ He made himself better, made the other quarterbacks better, made our team better.”
“He didn’t complain, didn’t whine,” Trivisonno said. “He did it like a man, did it right. Of all things he’s done, that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Ready to go
Trubisky, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer are at the top of a quarterback class that has been criticized for not having a sure thing and needing time to get acclimated to the NFL. Some analysts believe none deserves to be taken in the first round, although that’s unrealistic given the importance of the position and the needs of teams across the league.
“Mitch Trubisky, ironically, might be the most ready-to-play quarterback in this class and he’s only a one-year starter,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said Friday. “Like his pocket awareness, think he has good feet and a quick release. Don’t think he’s got a ceiling as high as some of the other guys, but I think he can become a solid NFL starter.”
The North Carolina offense contains more pro concepts than other spread systems, according to Heckendorf, including full-field reads, progressions and checkdowns. Trubisky believes he’ll be ready to start right away.
“You’ve just got to go in, earn the respect of the guys around you and pick it up as fast as possible,” he said. “You want to show that you can play from Day 1.”
The Tar Heels struggled down the stretch and Trubisky made a couple of terrible decisions that resulted in interceptions in the Sun Bowl loss to Stanford. But the good outweighed the bad, with accuracy and processing speed key separators.
“He has the uncanny ability to put the ball where it needs to go,” Trivisonno said. “He’s like a pitcher that paints the corners.”
“And he has the ability to process information,” Heckendorf said. “He really played at a different speed than everybody else mentally.”
It appears the Browns have settled on Trubisky as their top quarterback. The final decision, which won’t be easy, is finding the optimal time to draft him.
They could erase any doubt by taking him No. 1, but that would allow Garrett to go elsewhere. Waiting until No. 12 is risky, but giving up picks to move into the top five is contradictory to the front office’s core philosophy.
“Positive young man, bright, very competitive, brings a lunchbox, blue-collar mentality to the position,” Brown said. “We were impressed by him.”
Brown called Trubisky a “mature kid” and said the organization hasn’t had extra conversation about his Northeast Ohio background.
Those who know him best say he’s built to deal with everything that would go along with being selected by the Browns.
“He can handle it. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Heckendorf said. “He understands what he does preparing and on the field are the most important things.
“He’s got some personality to him as he gets more comfortable around people. Guys on our team absolutely love him.”
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