Recruiting is no doubt an inexact science. Evaluating high school players based on varsity statistics, snippets of film and whatever opportunities a college program gets to actually watch a prospect in person can only do so much to project how that player will adapt to the next level, fit in at a particular school or assimilate into a specific system.
But when the football coaches at Old Dominion first saw film of a promising quarterback from the Atlanta area named Taylor Heinicke, well, they couldn’t have been more certain in their initial determination.
“Taylor was in his senior year down in Atlanta, Georgia, and we got some video sent to us,” Old Dominion head coach Bobby Wilder recalled. “Our quarterback coach Ron Whitcomb evaluated his video and said, ‘Coach, I just saw a guy who would be perfect for our system.’ ... I put the video on, watched it with offensive coordinator Brian Scott and all three of us were convinced he’d be perfect.”
And the results on the field have certainly confirmed that evaluation.
Old Dominion, which hosts Coastal Carolina on Saturday in Norfolk, Va., in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs, ended up being the first school to make a scholarship offer to Heinicke, who has rewarded their confidence in him with two immensely productive seasons to start his collegiate career. As a sophomore this fall, he leads all FCS players in total offense at 412.27 yards per game, has been named one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award – which is given annually to the most outstanding player at the FCS level – and has the Monarchs ranked No. 3 in the country as they launch their playoff push.
“I think we’ve got the best player in the country, in my opinion. We’ve got Taylor Heinicke,” Wilder said. “... He’s the guy. He makes it go.”
And go and go and go. The Monarchs (10-1) lead all FCS teams in total offense at 538.27 yards per game while ranking a close second in scoring at 44.45 points per game, and now it’s Coastal’s turn to study film on the standout sophomore signal caller.
For a Chanticleers team that ranks 71st nationally in pass defense (219.7 yards per game) and has had trouble getting off the field on third down while also giving up its share of big plays, this may be as difficult a matchup as the secondary has faced all season.
“They have an outstanding passing game,” CCU coach Joe Moglia said. “They don’t get overly complex in terms of multiple sets, but they are incredibly efficient and productive in what they do. There’s no such thing as flawless execution, but their execution is outstanding.”
It was all rather fortuitous for both Old Dominion and its star quarterback how this all came to be.
Heinicke said that as a junior at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., he was running a traditional pro-style offense and had not exactly made many waves on the recruiting radar. As a senior, though, his team went to a spread offense that just happened to very closely match what the Monarchs are running these days at Old Dominion and the dominoes started falling from there.
He was named the Old Spice Player of the Year in the state of Georgia that season after setting Gwinnett County single-season records for passing yards (4,218) and touchdowns (44) and ultimately, according to Wilder, chose the Monarchs over offers from Richmond and Georgia State.
And he’s continued adding highlights and accolades since.
“It’s humbling. It’s very exciting,” Heinicke said this week of his growing national stature. “But without the receivers we have, without the linemen I have out there, the coaching, I wouldn’t be there without them.”
Old Dominion runs a very up-tempo offense with an emphasis on getting to the line quickly and keeping the chains moving, which Heinicke has proved pretty adept at while completing 335-of-491 passes for 4,158 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and rushing for 377 yards and eight scores. He set Division I records for passing yards in a game (730) and total offense (791 yards) in the Monarchs’ 64-61 win over a ranked New Hampshire team, and also has had passing performances of 492 yards and four touchdowns (vs. Duquesne) and 486 yards and seven touchdowns (vs. Campbell) this season. For what it’s worth, that single-game passing record he broke in September had stood since 1990.
“He has great vision,” CCU defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin said. “He sees the field, he doesn’t make mistakes, he’s very smart and he’s got very good feet – and he’s done it against very solid competition. You’re going to have to beat him because he’s not going to make any critical mistakes.”
That burden will fall largely on a Coastal secondary that Carlin is quick to say has made “giant strides” since the team’s early-October bye week.
Senior cornerback Dontavais Johnson ranks second among Big South Conference players with four interceptions this season, while junior LaDarius Hawthorne (59 tackles, three interceptions and four pass break-ups) has settled in on the opposite side after replacing senior Tre Henderson in the starting lineup midway through the season.
“I think we’ve improved tremendously, tremendously,” Carlin said. “We’re still looking to improve, but in terms of the progress we’ve made and some of the things we’ve done back there, we’re certainly headed in the right direction and have made major strides.”
Moglia seconded that opinion.
“I think our secondary is far better today than what we were earlier in the season, and earlier in the season I think we were porous,” he said. “... Now [teams] can still complete passes against us and they can still get a big play against us, but now you see a guy catching a ball and unless it’s deep chances are two, three or four guys are ready to hit him. That wasn’t necessarily the case the first three or four games of the season. ... We’re still a little bit inconsistent, but we’re a lot better than where we were.”
The Chants (8-4) get the opportunity to prove that Saturday at Old Dominion as this historic season of theirs – which already includes the first FCS playoff win in program history – carries on for at least another week. And after six-straight wins by double figures, this is no doubt a confident Coastal team at this point.
Even heading into what looks to be their toughest test yet.
“It’s nothing we can’t cover or we can’t matchup [with],” Johnson said. “We just have to be real disciplined this week.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.