NORFOLK — Taylor Heinicke is fascinated by pressure, motion, stress, efficiency and force. On the football field, as well.
Old Dominion's senior quarterback sees few correlations between his major, mechanical engineering, and football, other than the fact that both require massive time and effort.
Yes, there's precision and velocity and torque and leverage and mass displacement in football. Yes, Heinicke takes an analytical, almost mathematical, approach to the game, which befits his personality as well as his chosen course of study.
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Yet there are things he does and that he's accomplished that defy physical laws, things for which there is no formula or explanation.
He eludes defenders he doesn't always see. He locates open receivers who weren't there a moment earlier. In the fluid chaos of a well-drawn play gone awry, he and his teammates somehow end up 10 or more yards downfield with a fresh set of downs.
A kid overlooked by most colleges throws for 700 yards in a game and 11,000 yards in fewer than three full seasons. Dynamics, indeed.
"No idea it was going to be like this," ODU offensive coordinator Brian Scott said. "To say he's exceeded expectation in my eyes is an understatement. He's taken this whole thing to a new level. If anybody tells you different — if anybody on the staff says, oh yeah, we knew he was going to be a record-setting guy — they're lying. We all thought he had potential and could do some things. But we didn't think it would be like this."
Heinicke, the quiet kid from Atlanta, became the ringleader of the most successful start-up program in Division I history. He won the Football Championship Subdivision's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, the Payton Award. He helped put Old Dominion football on the map.
As he prepares for his final college season, he faces his greatest challenge — outside of maybe a 400-level engineering class. He will run ODU's offense in its first full season as a Bowl Subdivision member, in Conference USA.
"I knew I could be successful, just because of the offense I was in, how quickly the program was being built, the athletes I had around me," Heinicke said recently, sitting in a meeting room at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex. "I haven't really looked back at the last three years. I think 10-15 years from now, I'll really sit down and look at it and be very proud of what I've accomplished. But there's so much more to accomplish this year, there's no time to sit and look back on it."
Heinicke's story is almost the stuff of myth or legend. The true freshman got a battlefield promotion and ran with it. He replaced injured starter Thomas DeMarco, the original face of the program, in the second half of the fifth game of the 2011 season.
With only a modest grasp of the playbook, he completed 8 of 11 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns as the Monarchs scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to defeat 20th-ranked Massachusetts 48-33.
As DeMarco was slow to heal, the true freshman kept the starter's job. He threw for 2,385 yards and 25 touchdowns, with one measly interception, completing 68.7 percent of his passes. The Monarchs, picked to finish next-to-last in their first season in the CAA, tied for second and went to the FCS playoffs.
The following year, Heinicke put up PlayStation numbers, breaking Steve McNair's FCS passing yardage record with 5,076 yards and 44 touchdowns. Included was the had-to-be-there-to-believe-it, 730 passing yards and 791 total yards in a 64-61 win against New Hampshire. The Monarchs again went to the playoffs, and he won the Payton Award as the best offensive player in FCS.
In the mixed bag of the 2013 transition season, with no championship incentive and a schedule that included middlin' FCS programs as well as ACC schools, Heinicke still threw for 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, while completing 70 percent of his passes.
ODU head coach Bobby Wilder was a quarterback himself and has coached the position for pretty much his entire 27-year career. He said that quarterbacks generally have about 2.5 seconds from snap to throw, to determine what's going on around them and execute.
"That ability to process the information and perform the physical act of putting the ball where it needs to go, he's as good as I've seen," Wilder said, "and he's probably going to be as good as anybody in the country this year."
But Heinicke's X-factor is his knack for extending plays and permitting the skill-position players around him to find openings. William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock wondered if Heinicke possessed 360-degree vision after the Tribe's 41-31 loss to ODU in 2012. Former James Madison coach Mickey Matthews referred to him as "Taylor Football," a nod to you-know-who.
"For us to be in a situation where we don't have to use tight ends and can keep skill guys on the field, a lot of it's because he can bail us out of sacks or breakdowns in protection, he can extend plays," Scott said. "That's why we can do what we do right now. … That's probably his best attribute, is getting us out of a bad play and into a good play."
ODU quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb said there are times when Heinicke will come to the sideline, close his eyes and tell coaches what he saw on the field, as if he were describing a picture from memory or recalling moves from a chess match.