NORFOLK — The biggest difference in Old Dominion franchise quarterback and stat accumulator Taylor Heinicke is one we won't see.
Heinicke's footwork and mechanics are a bit improved. He can put a little more wasabi on his passes when required.
His most significant jump, however, begins in areas that his helmet protects. Entering his third season as the starter, he is in hand-to-glove grasp of the Monarchs' offense. And to hear him tell it, he will improvise far more judiciously.
"If the opportunity presents itself and I can get five yards, I will and I'll get down," Heinicke said Friday during the Monarchs' football media day. "If not, I've got to throw it away. I've got to save my health and play the next play."
Heinicke's approach is a nod to understanding his value to the team, as well as a step up in competition. The Monarchs' transition year into Conference USA includes five Football Bowl Subdivision teams, beginning with next Saturday's trip to East Carolina.
Quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb is constantly in Heinicke's ear about playing smart, about not jeopardizing the long haul for a moment's production.
"He says, you work all year to play a football season," Heinicke said of Whitcomb. "Why would you do something stupid and try to make a play to get one or two extra yards, and get hurt. Just throw it away and play the next play. Especially with our offense. Again, any play could go for a touchdown in our offense. Just be smart about it. Don't take that hit. Don't try to be a macho man and get the extra yard. Just play the next play."
The Monarchs have been awfully good with Heinicke going play-to-play. He won the Payton Award as the best offensive player in FCS, after throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 44 touchdowns, completing almost 69 percent of his passes. ODU led the nation in scoring offense, passing offense and total offense last season.
All of that means little as ODU moves up to FBS competition. Heinicke's task: Get better. Those who see him every day say that he is.
"He's really taken his game to another level," offensive coordinator Brian Scott said. "His hips are so much better. The velocity on his ball has gotten better. As far as understanding the offense, I feel like he's at 100 percent capacity right now, as far as where he wants to go with the football, where he wants to set his protections. And if he wants to change the play, he knows what he wants to do now. He's really taken his game to the next level."
Wide receiver Antonio Vaughan said, "He's had a great camp. Everybody knows he's a smart guy and he reads defenses real well. He puts passes on the money. He pays attention to details and does all the little things.
"He's very accurate. There ain't going to be too many times you have to make a play to catch one of his passes."
Head coach Bobby Wilder has been continually amazed by his junior quarterback, who took a battlefield promotion midway through his true freshman season and ran with it. That said, Wilder's message to Heinicke heading into the season is narrow.
"I'm looking for Taylor to do, basically, it's three words," Wilder said. "Very simple: move the chains. Just find a way to get the first down. If he can do that and we can string together some first downs this year, then it's going to be a good season.
"I've made it clear to him that I'm not interested in stats, I'm not interested in him trying to duplicate what he did last year. Because I wasn't interested, in his sophomore year, his numbers being above his freshman year. I told him the same thing this year that I told him going into last year: find a way to move the chains."
Heinicke's goals are mostly team-oriented, starting with wins. He wants to improve his touchdown-to-interception ratio, which was 44-14 last year, because fewer picks translate to fewer possessions and scoring chances for opponents. He would like to keep his completion percentage at or above 70 percent because, again, that likely translates to first downs and success for ODU's quick-strike, pass-first offense.
"Against our FBS opponents, we want to win every game," Heinicke said. "Against FCS opponents, we want to win every game, also. If we don't win those FBS games, we want to make it close – make a statement to FBS and to Conference USA that we belong there, that we want to compete for the championship next year. We want to go to East Carolina and Maryland and show that we belong on that field."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun