Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams on path back from injury

Marquise Williams (12) is sitting out spring practice at North Carolina with a hip injury, but he’s taking mental reps on the practice field every day preparing for next season.
Marquise Williams (12) is sitting out spring practice at North Carolina with a hip injury, but he’s taking mental reps on the practice field every day preparing for next season. Getty Images

After injured North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams finished throwing to injured receiver Quinshad Davis on Tuesday, Williams went into a booth overlooking UNC’s practice fields to watch.

Williams, who played high school football at Mallard Creek, wasn’t just a spectator. From play one through one hundred-plus, Williams charted each play, diagnosing the defense before the snap and deciding where he would go with the ball if he were healthy enough to be on the field.

A second-team All-ACC selection last year, Williams has been sidelined all spring following surgery to repair a partially torn hip labrum. The injury bothered him for more than a year before he had surgery this offseason, and now coaches have Williams focused on being an even smarter quarterback in his final season with the Tar Heels.

“The more he can get better on the mental approach to the game – seeing coverages, verifying coverages post-snap, understanding what the weaknesses are and how you can attack it – it’ll help him tremendously in the fall,” UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf said. “Whether it took this injury or getting his butt in the film room day in and day out, he’s got to do this to be as good as he potentially can be.”

UNC holds its final spring practice at Rocky River High School (10505 Clear Creek Commerce Dr. in Mint Hill) at 1 p.m. Saturday. The practice, which will feature a scrimmage, is free to the public. Concessions and food trucks will be in the parking lot to the main entrance to the stadium starting at 11:30 a.m.

Coach Larry Fedora confirmed this week that Williams is still the team’s No. 1 quarterback and will be going into the summer. That differs from last year, when Fedora didn’t name Williams the starter over Mitch Trubisky until after the first game of the season.

While the news would offer comfort to Williams, he’s not resting on it.

“It’s nice but I’m going to treat it as, ‘I’m still battling,’” Williams said. “I feel like I’m a different man when I’m battling and knowing that I’m in a competition battling. It feels good, but I can’t let up just knowing that I’m the No. 1. I have to treat it just like I was battling before and go get it. When I’m competing, I’m at a high percentage.”

Under Fedora, UNC players have not be allowed to talk about injuries. But Williams went into detail about his injury, which he suffered Nov. 16, 2013 against Pittsburgh.

On a screen pass to tight end Eric Ebron, Williams absorbed a hit from future NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald and landed awkwardly. Williams says now that he didn’t know his pass protections that well and that the hit could have been prevented if it happened again today.

“I thought it was going to heal like some bruise or something I wasn’t even concerned about,” Williams said, “but you keep going on and keep getting beat on and you start to worry, like what’s going on.”

He played with the injury throughout the 2014 season when he passed for 3,068 yards and had a 63.1 completion percentage. Williams also accounted for 35 touchdowns while seeing action on 621 plays – first in the ACC and fifth-most in the FBS.

Surgery after UNC’s bowl loss to Rutgers repaired the tear as well as shaved down some of the bone in the left hip. Doctors initially put his return to practice in late July, but Williams said he’s ahead of schedule and should be full-go by June 1.

So for the past 14 spring practices, Williams has sat in the booth and charted plays. When looking at the defense, Williams could see a safety creeping behind the linebacker, and he recognizes that stacking means they’re rotating and the blitz is coming.

From there Williams checks for his hot route, a quick pass to a receiver who operates as a safety valve. At the end of practice, he compares what the quarterbacks on the field did with moves he made from inside the booth.

“The game is starting to slow down,” Williams said. “In the past it was much faster but now it’s a step slower, slower and slower. Just knowing more defenses, blitzes, or when defenses are disguising. It’s different things, and I feel like this spring has helped me out a lot knowing what I need to do with the ball when something’s not going right now for us.”

Williams has remained in shape since the injury. After a passing comment by his dad about looking overweight when he was down to 213, Williams decided to tone up.

He’s at 220, but looks lean after focusing on running and ab workouts. He says he doesn’t have “any fat or anything.”

Fans should be able to see the difference even on TV. Last year’s broadcasts of UNC games showed an unflattering picture of Williams in which he appeared to have a fatter neck and face.

He changed that for the upcoming season.

“I’m glad you said something,” Williams told a reporter. “I knew that I was chubby and I knew I had to get that picture out. It’s funny, my grandma even said, ‘Is that my grandson?’ Hopefully things look better now.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9