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UNC quarterback competition begins in earnest with the start of practice

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com
UNC12-SP-080114-RTW
photos by Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams runs the offense during the Tar Heels' opening day of football practice for the 2014 season on Friday at Navy Field in Chapel Hill, N.C. Williams will compete with redshirt fresham quarterback Mitch Trubisky throughout the preseason

CHAPEL HILL After the seventh consecutive question about the North Carolina quarterback competition on Saturday during the Tar Heels’ annual media day, there was a pause – one long enough for coach Larry Fedora to smile and put together a witty one-liner.

“Any other position you guys would like to talk about today?” Fedora asked the media members seated in front of him.

And there were: the offensive line, the defensive line. Two days into preseason practice, though, the focus – both externally, from media and fans, and internally – is at quarterback, where Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky are competing to win the starting job.

Williams, the fourth-year junior who led UNC to victories in five of its final six games last season, practiced exclusively on Friday with the first-team offense, while Trubisky worked with the second team. They switched on Saturday during the second day of practice, and the rotation is likely to continue that way until one day, finally, Fedora makes a decision.

When that might come remains unclear. Fedora offered few hints about when he'd like to name a starting quarterback, and referenced the season-opener on Aug. 30 against Liberty as the only date that might constitute a deadline.

“We've got to make a decision that morning sometime, I would imagine,” he said. “We've got to put somebody out there for that first snap.”

The competition between Williams and Trubisky began in the spring, when Fedora – to the surprise of some, perhaps – declared the quarterback position to be open. If Williams was disappointed by the news, he didn't say so publicly – and he has continued to say the right things in the months since.

“We're pushing each other,” Williams said on Saturday. “That's what we need, and that’s what I love about the game. And I don’t want anything to be handed to me. I want to earn what I deserve.”

Trubisky, though, was brasher – at least during the spring. He said then that he expected to win the starting job.

Trubisky arrived at UNC in January 2013, an early enrollee in his recruiting class, and a highly-regarded prospect from Ohio, where he earned that state’s Mr. Football award. At the time, when Trubisky first came to UNC, Williams was working his way back into school amid academic issues.

For a semester, while Williams’ future at UNC was in doubt, it seemed like Trubisky would have the most certain path to succeeding Bryn Renner, the quarterback whose eligibility expired last season. Trubisky, though, said he expected Williams to return to school.

And when Williams did return, he exceeded expectations. Williams became the Tar Heels’ starter last season after Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Trubisky, meanwhile, watched from the sideline, knowing that he’d be sitting out the season and taking a redshirt.

“Knowing you're not going to play – it's a different feeling,” he said. “I don't know how to describe it, but it's weird.”

Even so, he said he remained “really into the game,” and that he spent game weeks preparing as if he'd play. He prepared himself, really, for this moment and these next several weeks – for the chance to prove himself the most capable quarterback to lead UNC’s offense.

Williams is the more experienced player, but Trubisky might be the more natural passer. Both players are known for their mobility, too.

And both players have had to overcome obstacles. For Williams, it was a perception that he wasn’t always the most serious or dedicated. He admitted on Saturday that he was, at one time, an underwhelming practice player.

That changed, Fedora said, after Renner’s injury.

“After the game that Bryn went down, you saw – he became a different player in practice,” Fedora said.

“There was no more waiting for my time to come – it’s here, and now I've got to do it. And he was a totally different person.”

Trubisky, meanwhile, has overcome his reluctance to speak out – a fear that he said manifested because of his place as an inexperienced, younger player. The coaching staff wanted him to become a more vocal, comfortable leader, and his teammates on Saturday described him that way.

Fedora called it a “good sign,” that Trubisky was speaking up and leading the offense through his words.

“I've learned I do have a place on this team and guys do listen to what I say,” Trubisky said.

Both players have spent no shortage of time talking about how the competition is bringing out the best in them, and their teammates, and how close they are. More than once, Williams has described Trubisky as “a brother,” and Trubisky on Saturday said the UNC quarterbacks call themselves “the gun club,” and that it’s like a fraternity.

“We’re going to be a family, we’re going to push each other to be the best we can,” Trubisky said.

Both Williams and Trubisky on Saturday thought about what they’d have to do to earn the starting job. Williams said he’d have to show the best leadership attributes, and to continue doing, he said, what he has been doing since the end of last season.

He struggled at times with his accuracy a year ago, but Williams didn’t seem worried about the perception that he’s not a strong passer.

“You've only seen five games from me, and as (former offensive coordinator Blake) Anderson said, he didn’t give me an opportunity to do what I was able to do,” Williams said. “And that’s what I’m going to do this year. I know I'm a passer and a runner, I'm just not a runner.

“That's what I like to do – I like to shock people, and I’m going to shock the world this year.”

Asked what would ultimately decide the competition, Trubisky said, “I don't really know yet.” He spoke of the importance of not committing turnovers, and of making “explosive plays” and said, “I would say the quarterback who can make the most plays while hanging onto the ball longest.”

After Saturday, 27 days remained before the first game of the season. More than three weeks for Williams and Trubisky to prove they’re the right quarterback to lead Fedora’s fast-paced spread offense.

Though Fedora hasn’t ruled out using a two-quarterback system, or that even the final decision would be made by the first game. The competition could stretch on, even after the Liberty game.

“It’s close,” Ryan Switzer, the sophomore receiver, said of the battle between Williams and Trubisky. “I’m not a quarterback expert, so as long as that guy is getting me the ball in a good space, I’m OK with it. And they’re both doing that right now.

“So I don’t know what the coaches are looking for. I don’t know what separates them – what one does better than the other. I just know that it is close.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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