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Setting expectations for Mitch Trubisky as the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback

How realistic are the expectations being set for Mitch Trubisky as he takes over as UNC’s quarterback?

Mitch Trubisky shows off his potentially-elite mobility. Fayetteville Observer

They say that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town when the starter is struggling. Even with a record-setting quarterback like Marquise Williams, Mitch Trubisky was still the topic of conversation many times over the past two seasons. Trubisky, the former Mr. Football in the state of Ohio, lost out on the starting quarterback position twice to Williams, but he still managed to show that he was a valuable asset with the potential of a future star whenever he did see action.

With Williams on the bench after losing his helmet, Trubisky first opened eyes with a go ahead touchdown pass on a pivotal 3rd down and six late in the fourth quarter on the road at Virginia in 2014 to cap a Tar Heel victory in Charlottesville. A year later, he was able to shine in relief of a struggling Williams, going 17 for 20 with 312 yards passing and four touchdowns in a win versus Delaware, earning himself ACC Offensive Back of the Week honors. The performance sparked the peak of the Williams vs Trubisky debate but lost traction after Williams had one of his patented bounce back performances at Georgia Tech in the following week.

Trubisky continued to see time and excel in spot duty throughout the 2015 season. At NC State, he was once again on for Williams for a play and managed to avoid defenders and fire a touchdown pass in a third down and goal situation. In the ACC Championship game against Clemson, Trubisky easily transitioned off the bench to convert on third down and long for the Tar Heels.

The success that Trubisky found in those spots, along with what Carolina returns with in 2016, has led Williams to place–on several occasions–lofty expectations for his successor heading into 2016.

With that being said, how realistic are these expectations? Another 11-1 regular season would likely do the trick once again with the Coastal crown. In Williams’ scenario of beating Clemson, that’s not that farfetched given what could have been if a certain onside kick wasn’t called offsides, but we don’t need to talk about that injustice.

A College Football Playoff berth would be difficult even with a 12-1 record and ACC title due to the glaring scheduling mishap of once again having two FCS teams on tap for 2016—something that heavily affected Carolina’s rankings throughout the Playoff polling and played a role in them being snubbed from the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The addition of Florida State and Georgia to the schedule also complicates the Tar Heels’ playoff chances, but are two games that would bolster their odds should they come out on the right side of each.

That alone would be hard enough for Trubisky to live up to if he wasn’t already faced with the task of following the most prolific quarterback in program history. As pointed out before, the performance in spot duty is encouraging but still only offers a small sample size. A cautionary tale that Carolina fans should look at before anointing Trubisky the piece that will elevate Carolina to the next level is that of Jeremy Johnson at Auburn last year.

Johnson, like Trubisky, was voted Mr. Football in his respective state of Alabama and came into his first season as a starter with high expectations. Again, like Trubisky, Johnson had to follow a prolific quarterback, one in Nick Marshall, who led Auburn to a National Championship berth. Johnson earned much of his acclaim, like Trubisky, with his success in spot duty. Most notably, a two-touchdown, 243-passing yard first half showing against Arkansas, while Marshall sat out due to suspension.

Johnson then struggled to live up to expectations in Auburn’s first three games, being intercepted six times, prompting the Auburn coaching staff to bench the quarterback after he lost all confidence. Unlike Johnson, Trubisky won’t been burdened with Heisman Trophy expectations, but has still been given attention as a missing link to a potential National Championship.

Confidence shouldn’t be an issue with Trubisky. Throughout his time in Chapel Hill, even when things weren’t going his way, he has made the most of his opportunities, as seen by his play in aforementioned spot duty.

He carried over that confidence in the spring by stepping into a leadership role even before being named the starter. In the annual spring game, Trubisky completed 13 of 22 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown to lock up the starting job heading into the summer. The confidence that the coaching staff and players have placed on him is part of the reason why many are encouraged about the things he may be able to do as his new regime begins under center.

There’s no doubt that Trubisky possesses the skill set to operate the Carolina offense at a high level. With the experience returning on the offensive side of the ball, there is good reason for all of the optimism surrounding a Trubisky-led offense. It’s important that Carolina fans recognize that there is still a learning curve in an offense when a new quarterback–even one who has spent four years in a system–takes over.

Trubisky may very well follow up on Williams’ promise and lead Carolina to its first ACC championship since 1980, but even a Coastal title defense and an increase in overall offensive numbers should be considered a success in the signal caller’s first season.