Carolina Panthers

Coaches joked he’d get them fired. Now Panthers QB Taylor Heinicke gets an NFL start.

His 14,959 passing yards would rank fifth-most in FBS history if his school hadn’t played three of his four collegiate seasons at the FCS level.

His 132 passing touchdowns would rank fourth-most and his 16,279 yards of total offense would rank sixth-most.

But before he starred at Old Dominion, before he was signed by the Carolina Panthers in January and before he makes his first NFL start on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, Taylor Heinicke was a 5-foot-11, 175-pound kid from Atlanta.

And, a kid at least one of his future college coaches joked would get them fired.

As a senior at Collins Hill (Ga.) High in 2010, Heinicke didn’t pick up any scholarship offers until an impressive run through the AAAAA playoffs.

He eventually committed to Old Dominion that December, but when offensive coordinator Brian Scott and quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb went to visit him during the offseason, the first impressions were ... memorable.

“He had lost a bunch of weight and he was down to about 175 pounds,” Scott said. “He was about 5-11 at the time, and I remember seeing him for the first time in person when I went over to his house. My jaw almost hit the floor and I said, ‘I can’t believe we’re taking this kid, because he’s so small.

“We were excited when we got him, but we never knew it was going to work out like it did, and I’d be lying if I said any different.” The look on Whitcomb’s face apparently wasn’t any better.

But if you’re to understand what drives Heinicke to this day, you must first understand what that look meant to the then-teenager.

A motivator to this day

Heinicke, 25, never wanted to see it again. Not on Whitcomb’s face, not on anyone’s.

“That has something to do with how well I did at ODU. I committed but they hadn’t really seen me yet, and they came down,” Heinicke said. “I remember the look on Ron Whitcomb’s face when he saw me in the weight room.

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2013, file photo, Pittsburgh defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) pressures Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke (14) during an NCAA football game in Pittsburgh. Donald, the most-decorated defensive player during the 2013 college football season with four major awards, could be the Panthers’ highest draft pick since wideout Larry Fitzgerald was taken third overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2004. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File) Keith Srakocic AP

“I was just wearing some sweat pants and a white T-shirt or something, it was after the season so I wasn’t working out. I was 5-10, 170 pounds and Whitcomb looked at me like, ‘I’m about to get fired.’

“I remember that look and the feeling I got, like I don’t ever want anyone looking at me like that or feeling like that. That was a big part of me going to ODU and working my tail off and proving him that he was right in offering me a scholarship.”

Despite the video game numbers he’d eventually put up, the start to his collegiate career was incredibly realistic. When he arrived in Norfolk, Va., he made throws you’d expect from a player his size — until fall camp began.

His coaches quickly realized this Heinicke kid probably wouldn’t get them fired. He might have even added a little job security.

“He came in and he kind of threw a soft, wobbly ball without a lot of velocity over the summer,” Scott said. “Then he got to camp and he was starting to get completions when he’d go in. And I’m not talking about the first read, I’m talking about check downs to the back that you’d expect a third or fourth-year guy to make, (a guy) that’s been in the system.

“He’s only been taking reps for about a week and it just kept continuing throughout camp. It was getting better and better.”

An opportunity arises

His development eventually convinced his coaches to turn to him if their starter missed time with an injury.

Sound familiar?

Similar to how he’ll get his first NFL opportunity taking over for an injured Cam Newton, Heinicke got his first collegiate shot filling in for injured senior Thomas DeMarco. Except in that case, instead of five days to prepare, he got about 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, around the fourth or fifth game, I think (DeMarco) stress fractured his shin or ankle,” Heinicke said. “I remember going in (the locker room) at halftime and coach looks around the corner and says, ‘you’re going in.’

“I about puked in my mouth and tried to figure out what I was going to do. Then we went out there and won our first conference game.

“It all took off from there, it was a pretty cool experience.”

Scott called a pass for Heinicke’s first play, which he completed.

That’s when the freshman started to let it rip, finishing 8-of-11 for 119 yards and two touchdowns.

“I’m talking bombs down the middle of the field on things that you’re like, ‘he shouldn’t know that that’s there at this stage of his career,’” Scott said. “But he did, and from there, you could just tell he was just different.”

Heinicke went on to become the record-setting face of the program for the next three years. With a player like him under center, building an offensive game plan seems simple enough.

Scott disagrees. Heinicke was like that student in class who’d question the math mid-lesson. So that math better be correct.

“A lot of people say, ‘hey, it must be really easy to call a game when Taylor Heinicke’s your quarterback,’ but that wasn’t the case,” Scott said, laughing. “You better be prepared to have answers when you’re coaching a kid like Taylor, because he was going to have answers and questions, himself. He kind of had a plan, he did his prep, he understood the shapes and he understood the numbers.

“It challenged me as a coach and challenged coach Whitcomb — we better have this thing right or he’s going to find that we don’t and he’s going to expose us.

“He was a very prepared kid.”

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2018, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke (6) throws a pass during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh. Heinicke will be making his first career start against the Falcons with Cam Newton out with a shoulder injury. (AP Photo/Don Wright, File) Don Wright AP

A coach on the field

Heinicke still has that intricate knowledge of his team’s playbook.

The Panthers signed the 6-1, 210-pounder in the offseason largely because of the three years he spent with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner with the Minnesota Vikings.

As the Turners installed a new system, Heinicke, the undrafted camp body, suddenly became a coach on the field.

“I got here in OTA’s and it was good to know the offense, know the playbook — it was the same vernacular and stuff like that,” he said. “It was cool, I was kind of teaching the guys when I first got here — they didn’t know who I was.

“It’s kind of a hard playbook to learn at first but once you get it, it’s pretty easy. Being there for three years, I know it like the back of my hand and the guys are really catching on to it, too.”

His teammates may not have known him in OTAs but they’re familiar with him now — especially as he’s taken over a majority of the practice reps since Week 8.

Newton’s practice schedule limits him to one day of throwing per week, so Heinicke has taken over the mid-week’s reps.

“The one thing about Cam not taking reps on Wednesdays or Thursdays is Taylor’s gotten a lot of reps over the last month,” Norv Turner said. “So (his teammates) see him, they’ve seen him this, they know his presence in the huddle.”

That preparedness dates to the memory of that look on Whitcomb’s face. That look is why he worked tirelessly with the quarterback coach during their first summer and beyond to tighten his mechanics and develop his arm strength. And it’s why he always knows the ins-and-outs of every game plan.

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Still close

Heinicke and Whitcomb are close to this day, with their relationship taking on a new dynamic after Heinicke’s father died from a heart attack during his freshman year at Old Dominion.

“We talk every, single week. He comes and trains with me during the offseason, he’ll come stay at my house,” Whitcomb said. “We have a very close relationship. He lived alone with his father in high school and unfortunately his freshman year at Old Dominion, his father passed suddenly.

“He and I kind of had a special bond his four years here. When things come up with him, I’m there for him and vice versa.”

Heinicke called Whitcomb “like a big brother to me,” one who’s prepared for big things from his former pupil.

“I think that if Taylor stays healthy, he has all the tools that will allow him to be a successful starter in the NFL,” he said. “Intelligent, accurate and he can extend the play. It’s what everybody’s looking for. Russell Wilson, (Patrick) Mahomes. Is he to that level? Obviously not, he hasn’t done it to the level that they have. But he has the ability to do all of the same things.”

Carolina Panthers’ Taylor Heinicke (6) is congratulated by Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton (1) after a play against the Baltimore Ravens in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

Scott, who watched the Panthers’ loss Monday to the New Orleans Saints, said he knew there was something off about Newton’s shoulder and figured the team could give Heinicke a shot.

Based on his assessment, Carolina fans should get ready for some fireworks.

“The biggest thing that he’ll do is he’ll ad-lib and make plays with his feet when plays break down,” he said. “That’s the great equalizer to me. It’s hard to sit in that pocket and execute the game plan up and down the field, but he’s going to find a way to get out of the pocket and make some plays.

“I think the sky’s the limit for him if he gets the chance. I know it’s easy for me to say but he made this program (at Old Dominion). This program was starting from scratch and he put the whole thing on his back and took it to a whole ‘nother level. I could see him doing that in the pros with a legit shot.”

Obviously it’d be irresponsible to project Heinicke’s future before he plays a single meaningful snap, or suggest he’d retain Newton’s spot once the $100 million quarterback is healthy.

But regardless of how he performs Sunday, and regardless of how fans look at him moving forward, no look will be as impactful as the one Whitcomb gave him seven years ago.

That’s the look that still pushes him.

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Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.