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How UB assistant Ron Whitcomb had a hand in making Washington's Taylor Heinicke a pro

How UB assistant Ron Whitcomb had a hand in making Washington's Taylor Heinicke a pro

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Ron Whitcomb knew Taylor Heinicke’s ceiling as a quarterback was high. 

But as Old Dominion’s football program prepared to transition from Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2013, Whitcomb was concerned that Heinicke would leave the program in order to improve his value as a potential professional prospect.

“At the time, we went into a transition year where we couldn’t play in the postseason, and he did a lot for Old Dominion,” Whitcomb said. “He could have transferred. He had a redshirt year. He could have left Old Dominion to play Power Five football.”

Instead, Heinicke stayed at Old Dominion after he won the Walter Payton Award in 2012 as the nation’s top FCS offensive player. Heinicke’s decision came to the delight and the relief of Whitcomb, who is now the tight ends coach for the University at Buffalo football team.

Whitcomb was Old Dominion’s quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach for offense from 2007 to 2019, and Heinicke was one of his star pupils.

Whitcomb’s experiences will overlap at the college and professional levels this weekend. First, he’ll coach against the team where he forged his work as a coach when the Bulls (1-2) play at 6 p.m. Saturday at Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va. He’ll be in the UB football facility the next day, with one eye on the television when Heinicke and the Washington Football Team play the Bills at 1 p.m. Sunday at Highmark Stadium.

When asked about his connection with Heinicke, and how his tutelage helped Heinicke become an NFL quarterback, Whitcomb cited a theme in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” in which the author found that through statistical analysis, timing plays a key role in determining success.

“I think sometimes in business, or in different situations in life, there’s a perfect match or perfect timing,” said Whitcomb, who was a quarterback at East Rochester High School and at the University of Maine. “At that point in my career and with him, we worked well, he was in the right system with the head coach. He had a ton of talent and I was growing professionally, coaching quarterbacks. It worked.”

But how did an ambitious young college football coach end up at UB, initially among the football program’s support staff? Like working with Heinicke, it was about the intersection of timing and opportunity.

A coach’s path to Buffalo

When Bobby Wilder resigned as Old Dominion’s coach in December 2019, Whitcomb no longer had a job with the Monarchs. Whitcomb joined UB’s staff as an offensive analyst and scouting coordinator in June 2020. When former UB coach Lance Leipold left in April to become the head coach at Kansas, Whitcomb’s future again was in flux, even if only for a few weeks.

Whitcomb’s resume as a quarterbacks coach – combined with the fact that UB had Old Dominion on its schedule in the fall – should have made him a shoo-in on UB coach Maurice Linguist’s staff. But even Whitcomb knew there was no guarantee of his next job.

“You pretty much bang down the door,” said Whitcomb, whose promotion was made official in May. “I didn’t leave here for a week straight, and I tried to show him any and every reason I could bring value to the organization. He believed in me and I’m really appreciative of the opportunity.”

His pitch to Linguist was his passion for teaching, his value to the staff as a native to the region, and his belief in the culture at UB.

In fact, Whitcomb was the only holdover to be named as an assistant on Linguist’s staff.

“Ron does have some knowledge, because he was at Old Dominion for a long time,” Linguist said Monday. “He’s familiar with some of the guys, but they’ve had some attrition and they’ve brought in some new guys, as well. We’re lifting up every stone, every rock that we can find to find the small details and answers, and coach Whitcomb, having that knowledge and that experience, and even just being in that place, knowing where you fly into and the small details that make the whole transition down there as smooth as possible, we’re picking his brain to find out some of those small details.”

Whitcomb, though, found his calling in Norfolk as Old Dominion’s quarterbacks coach, as he helped resurrect a program that had been dormant for nearly 70 years. He worked with Heinicke from 2011-14, and Heinicke became the Monarchs’ all-time leader in total passing yards (14,959), touchdown passes (132), pass completions (1,238), passing yards per game (325) and pass completion percentage (67.7%).

“His biggest gain at Old Dominion was that he never stopped allowing me to push him,” Whitcomb said. “After he won the Walter Payton Award, he could have been like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this.’ But I continued to grow professionally, he continued to grow and allow me to push him, and that’s where I feel like he got the opportunity to go to the next level.”

A quarterback’s path to the NFL

Of the quarterbacks Whitcomb worked with at Old Dominion, Heinicke has generated the most buzz as a professional.

Undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2015, Heinicke joined Minnesota as a free agent, and spent the next three years bouncing between the active rosters and practice squads of the Vikings, New England, Houston and Carolina.

He didn’t play in 2019, and his stay with St. Louis of the XFL in 2020 was brief; the XFL suspended operations in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He replaced Alex Smith as Washington’s starter for its NFC wild-card game against Tampa Bay in January, weeks after joining Washington's practice squad. 

Heinicke threw for 306 yards and a touchdown on 26 of 44 passing in Washington's 31-23 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion, but helped his cause in making Washington’s 53-man roster this season.

Heinicke has benefited from another intersection of timing and opportunity this season.

He replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick as Washington’s starter last week in a 30-29 win against the New York Giants. In only his second career start, Heinicke steered Washington’s game-winning drive – aided by an offside penalty against the Giants – that allowed Dustin Hopkins to kick a 43-yard field goal after his initial 48-yard attempt went wide right.

Through all of that, he kept in contact with Whitcomb, whether it was to dissect plays, to train with him during the offseason or to tell him about an undrafted rookie named Jaret Patterson, who was turning heads in Washington’s minicamps in the spring.

Whitcomb might feel a little conflicted this weekend, when Heinicke starts against the Bills, the team Whitcomb grew up rooting for – a day after Whitcomb returns to where he helped Heinicke prepare to be a pro.

“My biggest advice for him is, stay healthy, continue to take advantage of this opportunity,” Whitcomb said. “I tell him that I love him, all the time, and I’m so proud of him. Because last year at this time, we weren’t playing football and he was at home, taking classes online at Old Dominion. He was out of the NFL. For him, he continued to stay ready and continued to prepare and for him to take advantage of this opportunity right now, it’s so cool.”

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College/high school sports enterprise reporter

I'm a college/high school sports enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News. I've worked in sports journalism since 1997 and I have covered everything from college football to the Stanley Cup playoffs, high school sports and the NCAA Tournament.

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