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The Quarterback Rotation Problem

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Streeter Lecka

It started innocently enough in February as a competition between incumbent starter Marquise Williams and highly touted redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Larry Fedora opened the quarterback position up for grabs in the spring and give both Williams and Trubisky equal reps with the first team through practice and training camp. Ultimately Williams got the starting nod with Fedora giving Trubisky every third series in the opener against Liberty. The pattern of giving Trubisky the third series of the game and a few after than has continued unabated with mixed results.

During the first two games, switching the quarterbacks didn't come off as a big deal since Williams didn't necessarily distinguish himself as truly the better option. That changed in the second half against San Diego State when Williams' play was part and parcel to the Tar Heel rally for a win. After a loss to East Carolina where no one played well, Williams threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns at Clemson. That performance would seemingly put the rotation to bed given Trubisky hadn't been productive and Williams was getting the job done.

That wasn't the case as the season moved into its fifth game. On Saturday against Virginia Tech, Fedora sent Trubisky out for the third series of the game as he had done in the previous four contests. At the time UNC was down 14-3 and the last possession saw Williams led the Tar Heels on a 64-yard drive for a field goal. Williams, who's mobility was clearly an issue for the Hokies, would sit in favor of Trubisky who promptly went three and out. Now, there is no way of knowing if Williams' playing would have yielded a different result. In fact the three subsequent possessions with Williams directing the offense produced just 17 yards and ended without a first down. Trubisky's second turn in the game resulted in a pick-six and the Tar Heels starting at a 24-3 hole going into halftime.

Fedora maintained on Monday that the quarterback rotation has little to do with UNC's offensive struggles. To some extent he is correct as proven by the three Williams' drives prior to Trubisky's ill-fated stint near the end of the first half. However, it most certainly can be argued the quarterback change isn't helping matters either. Simply staying with Williams might not solve all the offensive woes but disrupting the rhythm of the offense and Williams without regard for the game situation isn't a positive contribution either. If Trubisky brought a completely different skill set that forces the opposing defense to change how they handle UNC's offense the change would make sense. In this case the two quarterbacks in question are similar begging the question who lean on a less experienced player at a time when UNC is already behind the eight ball?

Therein lies the rub. If there are no legitimate reasons within the context of the game to switch to Trubisky then the reasons for doing so must be beyond that. The fact Fedora goes to Trubisky on the third series without fail makes this look less like he's trying to change the game up or looking for a "spark" and more like he's satisfying other concerns. Did Trubisky get promised playing time? Is there a concern he might transfer if he isn't tossed a bone this season? Does Fedora simply prefer Trubisky since he recruited him for this offensive system? Whatever the case, it is difficult to think Fedora isn't allowing long term program concerns to supersede immediate win-this-game ones.

When asked about this today on The Adam & Joe Show on 99.9 The Fan, former ECU coach Steve Logan speculated Fedora using Trubisky in such a rigid fashion was an investment in the future type of move. The theory goes that Fedora knows this season is probably lost to some degree because the team simply isn't very good. However there is plenty of time, given Fedora's seven year contract and the security it brings, to get the recruiting rolling and fill out a roster depleted by NCAA sanctions.. When that happens, Fedora wants a ready-to-go quality quarterback and Trubisky, who has three more years beyond this one, is it.

On one level that makes sense and playing Trubisky isn't necessarily a bad idea for those reasons. Fedora sees both quarterbacks in practice and knows better than the rest of us what they're each capable of doing. Trubisky getting playing time isn't a problem if it makes sense within the context of the game and produces something. In that respect, had Trubisky not made his clockwork-like third series appearance but instead been inserted after multiple failed drives, the "looking for a spark" reasoning would be plausible. Even with Trubisky playing the third series of the game, his appearance late in the first half wasn't a horrible idea since the offense had stalled. The fact it ended in the worst possible way colors how the decision is viewed and raises more questions than Fedora is probably willing to answer

Investing for the future is a noble goal but when it is happening at the expense of the present, it's a tough pill for fans to swallow. The problem here is Fedora doesn't a long track record of building a program at this level. If this were Butch Davis in 2008 doing this, it would be easier to play the "wait and see" card because Davis had been successful in other places. Fedora has no such reputation. Also, Fedora's decision making to date plus the lack of discipline and execution by the team in general doesn't exactly inspire the needed trust to make a move like this palatable.

The conventional wisdom says UNC should ride or die with Marquise Williams and give Mitch Trubisky reps as the opportunity presents itself, providing the risk to the team's win probability is low. The best chance for the Tar Heel offense to be successful this season rests with Williams being the lone quarterback. Wasting possessions on Trubisky, as it pertains to winning games now, seems counterproductive. There is also no assurance Trubisky's random stints have any real value or necessarily get him enough experience to make a huge difference down the road. In short, it is possible Fedora is risking games now for what could end up being very little future benefit.

Ultimately, personnel decisions made to invest in the future are probably best left for early games the team is virtually assured to win or when the season is lost. Doing it during conference games the team is fighting to win implies the coach believes the latter is already true.