Taylor Heinicke couldn’t help but chuckle.
A few feet away, Christian McCaffrey was speaking to the media after a June minicamp practice, swallowed by the swarm of reporters. Heinicke tried to imagine himself in his teammate’s shoes, but he shook his head.
“Yeah, not my deal,” Heinicke said, nodding in McCaffrey’s direction. “That right there, what Christian’s doing?”
Heinicke may not want the spotlight, but his current standing with the Carolina Panthers has forced him into it.
After Cam Newton’s shoulder issues sidelined the Panthers’ starting quarterback for the final two games of last season, Heinicke took his place in Week 16. He was up-and-down in his lone start — throwing for 274 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions — before getting hurt and finishing the year on injured reserve.
“Getting hurt” probably doesn’t do Heinicke’s injury justice — he tore every ligament in his (non-throwing) left elbow and partially tore his triceps.
Now months removed from surgery, Heinicke is back participating fully in practices — and back competing for the job as Newton’s backup.
Generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Heinicke doesn’t fit the prototypical quarterback mold. In theory, his frame would put him at a disadvantage against competitors Will Grier (6-foot-2) and Kyle Allen (6-foot-3). On top of his smaller size, Heinicke doesn’t have Grier’s high draft position or even Allen’s pedigree of a 5-star high school prospect.
Still, the 26-year-old’s accuracy, intelligence and mobility make him a strong contender.
“If people aren’t careful,” coach Ron Rivera said, “we’re going to overlook him.
“We can’t afford to do that.”
Old Dominion’s gamble
When Brian Scott, Old Dominion’s offensive coordinator, laid eyes on Heinicke during their initial home visit, his first thought was panic.
“When he came to the door, I saw how small he was,” Scott said, “and I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.’”
Although Heinicke was a record-setting quarterback at Collins Hill (Ga.) High, he was also small. He weighed just 175 pounds – if that.
But Old Dominion decided to take a gamble.
“It was a turning point in our program’s history,” Scott said. “At the time, we only had three seasons as a program. When we did put him in the game, it turned our program around.”
Because of Heinicke’s size, Old Dominion primarily ran an “air raid” system with four wide receivers. But he was a sneaky athlete, said Ron Whitcomb, the team’s quarterbacks coach.
“When he came back his sophomore year, you could tell he was committed to getting rid of all the stereotypes of, ‘You can’t play because you small.’ So he got bigger,” Scott said. “His arm got stronger. He got quicker.”
Halfway through the 2012 season, Scott and Whitcomb realized Heinicke had the potential to go pro. He led the country in nearly every offensive category: passing yards, touchdowns and total offense.
Heinicke’s standout performance came during Old Dominion’s 64-61 comeback win over New Hampshire. He threw for 730 yards, setting the Division I record, as he led the team back from a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
By the end of the season, Heinicke had thrown for more than 5,000 yards and 44 touchdowns while rushing for another 11 scores. He won the Walter Payton Award, given to the best player in the FCS, and he was only a sophomore.
In 2015, Heinicke signed with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent and spent two seasons with the team. He spent two weeks with the Patriots before being released and was then signed by Houston for the 2017 season.
By the time he joined the Panthers for the 2018 season, Heinicke had thrown one NFL pass. It was incomplete, and he suffered a concussion on the same play.
But his college coaches have not lost faith in Heinicke’s future.
Said Scott: “There’s no question that he’s an NFL player with his work ethic.”
‘It’s always a mental thing’
In June, during a morning practice in the Panthers’ minicamp, Heinicke bounced on his toes, surveying the field in front of him as receivers scrambled to get open.
Heinicke sidestepped out of the collapsing pocket, then launched a 60-yard pass that landed perfectly into his receiver’s outstretched arms.
The play was as much a product of Heinicke’s preparation as it was his physical ability. While he spends hours analyzing film and the team’s playbook, it’s his ability to “see the field” that sets him apart, his college coaches say.
Based on his minicamp performance, it’s difficult to tell that Heinicke had surgery in early January to repair his elbow and triceps.
Heinicke still remembers.
He remembers the hit, hearing a pop in his elbow and then the radiating pain.
He remembers returning to the field several possessions later, sporting a black elbow brace, and finishing the game injured.
He remembers the aftermath, and struggling to do “the little things,” as he described it. Things like sleeping, showering, getting dressed.
After the surgery, he put extra hours in at the gym, trying to get back to playing as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until a month ago that he says he started feeling normal, minus a rare flare of pain.
Meanwhile, he continues to pore through the playbook, looking for any advantage.
“Every day, it’s mental,” Heinicke said. “Try to be on top of your game because you can do everything in the weight room, but if you’re doing the wrong things on the field, you’re not going to be successful. It’s always a mental thing for quarterbacks.”
While the Panthers won’t say where Heinicke and the other quarterbacks rank in the race for Newton’s backup, Rivera says Heinicke’s playmaker mentality makes him stand out.
First there were the doubts in his ability, then the injuries and roster cuts. Now, Heineke faces some of the most talented competition in his career.
That doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying.
“He’ll get a shot at some point because of who he is,” Scott said. “People have been telling him no ever since high school.
“I just think he’s determined to keep proving people wrong.”