Taylor Heinicke vividly remembers the summer workouts and accompanying fatigue and apprehension. Mere weeks out of high school, he hadn't a clue what he faced or what to expect at Old Dominion.
The freshman quarterback finally began to settle into a routine, believing that he would have a year to prepare. But the future arrived early and, knock on wood, he has performed beyond his years, and the Monarchs' offense churns along unbowed.
"I think we've played exceptionally well," Heinicke said earlier this week. "We have stuff to work on and we can play better. When we do, I think it's going to be pretty. But we still haven't played our best football yet."
Heinicke and the Monarchs (6-2, 3-2 CAA) face their stiffest challenge to date as they host traditional power James Madison (5-2, 3-1 CAA) and its nasty-quick defense noon Saturday at Foreman Field.
ODU coach Bobby Wilder called the JMU game the biggest in the Monarchs' short history, because of both conference and postseason implications, as well as the natural rivalry between the two schools that now extends to the football field.
The two obvious storylines are the Monarchs' ability to slow down JMU's No. 1-ranked rushing offense, and conversely, ODU's No. 1 scoring offense against a Dukes' defense that's No. 1 in scoring (18.7 ppg), rushing (89.4 ypg) and total defense (301.1 ypg).
The one area in which JMU's defense has been susceptible this season is against the pass. The Dukes are in the middle of the CAA in pass defense and in the lower rung on opponents' third-down conversions.
"We're going to give up a lot of points and lose the game if we don't play better pass defense," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. "I don't think there's any secret. … We need to turn the ball over more and play better pass defense."
That puts a great deal on Heinicke's slender shoulders, though to his credit he has absorbed everything thrown his way, by both his own coaches and opponents.
"I definitely have more scrapes and bruises these past three weeks than all last year," he said, "but that's OK. It's fun."
Heinicke, 6-foot, 1/2-inch and 185 pounds, took over for Thomas DeMarco in the second half against Massachusetts after DeMarco suffered a high ankle sprain late in the second quarter.
In the 14 quarters since, the Atlanta-area high school Player of the Year is completing 70.5 percent of his passes and averaging 222 yards per game, with 10 touchdowns and only one interception — that a Hail Mary throw at the end of the Towson game. His pass efficiency rating (164.8) would lead the CAA had he played enough games.
"It hasn't been a drastic improvement each week," Wilder said. "It's hard to improve on 10 touchdowns, one interception and a 70-percent completion percentage. What's been most impressive to me is how consistent he's played. To play that well for one half of football, that's pretty good. But to do it now for 14 quarters, that's what I'm most impressed with."
In relief of DeMarco against UMass, Heinicke was 8-for-11 for 119 yards and two touchdowns as ODU pulled away in the fourth quarter. As DeMarco continues to recover from the ankle sprain, Heinicke embraced the starter's role. He watches more film than Roger Ebert and grows more comfortable by the day.
"At first, I was just a freshman quarterback with a bunch of seniors," Heinicke said, "and I'm thinking they don't want to hear me. But I realize the quarterback has to be a leader, no matter how old he is, so I've had to speak up a little more and do what I can to lead."
In the past couple of weeks, Wilder and the offensive staff have sought Heinicke's thoughts on play selection. They've begun to ask him what plays he's comfortable running in various situations.
"Generally, with a freshman quarterback, it's just: Tell me what the play is and I'll try my best to do what you want," said Wilder, himself a former quarterback. "With him, it's beyond that. He wants more than just the play. He wants to have some input into what we're running."
The Monarchs' spread offense, with four-receiver sets and emphasis on quick throws, is both demanding on quarterbacks and QB-friendly. The quarterback must read coverages and identify "hot" receivers quickly, but he also has multiple targets and often doesn't take as many hits.
"What we've done is put some really good football players around him," Wilder said. "He's throwing to some very skilled players, and he's behind a good offensive line. And he's come into a program that quite frankly has been successful offensively in our whole existence. We've been a 400-yard, 30-plus point operation for 30 games now. It's not as if when he came in, we needed him to take us over the hump, so to speak."
Indeed, ODU averages 36.8 points and 414.5 yards per game. Thirteen Monarchs have scored touchdowns this season. Six players have caught at least 18 passes. Six players have rushed for at least 97 yards, though that's as much a function of injury as backfield depth.
"I firmly believe we have the best receiver corps in the CAA," Heinicke said. "Those guys make me look good."
And vice versa. Not only is Heinicke an accurate pocket passer, he moves and slides and consistently looks downfield for receivers.
"Whether he was pressured and moved or moved to try to find a lane to a receiver," Wilder said, "he's carried that over from high school into college. Our receivers have noticed that, if something's not open right away, he's not just going to tuck it and run. He's going to move laterally and try to create seams, so it's changed their approach."
For example, against Towson, Nick Mayers turned a simple flat route into a 93-yard catch-and-run when he adjusted and Heinicke found him.
Last week against Villanova, the Wildcats had a particular pass play well covered late in the second quarter, so Heinicke again bought time, and Mayers adjusted his route toward the sideline. Heinicke found him for an easy touchdown catch and a 30-14 halftime lead.
"I like throwing the ball," Heinicke said. "I don't like running the ball that much. I'd rather get it to the receivers. But having that threat of throwing the ball when I'm out of the pocket and scrambling, I think helps my running game."
He joked that he often has no idea what he's doing when he takes off running, though he has netted 107 rushing yards and a couple of touchdowns, along with a handful of first-down runs. His calm, business-like approach has served the offense well.
"I wouldn't say he's better than we expected," Wilder said, "because when you throw for 4,400 yards in high school in the league he played in and you're the Player of the Year, and you come from a winning program, and you're humble, you're a good student, you're a good teammate, there's an expectation level that you'll continue on and keep playing that well."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun