Football

UNC’s Marquise Williams continues evolution from ‘I’ guy beginnings

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams listens to a question during the team's NCAA college football media day in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. Williams has been the run-pass threat driving the Tar Heels' offense, and has another chance to put up big numbers as a senior.
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams listens to a question during the team's NCAA college football media day in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. Williams has been the run-pass threat driving the Tar Heels' offense, and has another chance to put up big numbers as a senior. AP

Occasional noise aside, Marquise Williams wasn’t a bad roommate when he bunked at Ram Village with Landon Turner during the pair’s first year at North Carolina.

“He didn’t bother me too much,” Turner said with a smile Wednesday. “He liked to play music loudly every once in a while. But other than that, it wasn’t too bad.”

Williams’ attitude was something else. Turner, a senior offensive lineman, remembers the kind of characteristics that used to define Williams, the Tar Heels’ fifth-year senior quarterback.

Williams had built a reputation. It wasn’t all that good.

“He wasn’t like the worst ‘I’ guy of all time when we first met,” Turner said. “But he definitely had a lean toward himself, kind of didn’t see much past himself that first semester.”

In the years since, Williams, once a heralded recruit at Charlotte Mallard Creek High, has traveled an unusual path for a player who arrived with no shortage of expectations.

He endured coaching transitions, and he bided his time to play. In spring 2013, he found himself out of school for academic reasons. Then he had to work his way back in the classroom and on the field.

He played well during the second half of the 2013 season, filling in after Bryn Renner was injured. But not well enough, given that Williams had to compete for the starting job a season ago.

Williams won the job and was as productive as any quarterback in the ACC. Which brings him to where he is now, on the cusp of his final college season and feeling as good as he has in years thanks to hip surgery that forced him to miss spring practice.

There are years of evolution behind him. On the field. Off of it. Nothing changed him as much as that semester away.

“When I was kicked out of school,” he said, “I had to think about how much football really means to me. Being away from those guys, getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m still just sitting there like, ‘Man, I’m not with my team.’ That kind of put a hurt to my heart.”

As a senior, Williams’ experience comes with the burden of expectations, among them that he’ll be an effective leader.

And leadership didn’t come as naturally as passing and throwing and running. Williams had to work on it. He had to change. His teammates say he has. The academic struggles, Turner said, “probably had a lot to do with it.”

“(It) probably humbled him to see he needed to get his act together and stop being so focused on himself and not being more caring,” Turner said. “If you look at Marquise Williams, the guy he is now, if you watch him on the field … he’s always encouraging others, always trying to get everyone’s energy levels up.

“And that’s something that you wouldn’t have seen his freshman year.”

Confidence strong, growing

What anyone would have seen back then is Williams’ confidence. That trait, he said, “really never leaves me.”

It’s part of the reason he said UNC’s offensive line is the best in the country – an improvement from last week, when he said it was merely the best in the ACC – and part of the reason he speaks with so much adoration for the running backs behind him.

Williams’ confidence often carries him head on into oncoming defenders, all in the pursuit of an extra yard or two after escaping pressure. That was the part of his game he most needed to refine: determining when to use his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame to surge ahead for extra yardage and when to slide to avoid punishment.

“I don’t see the hits he takes until film,” said junior receiver Ryan Switzer. “When I see them at film, I’m like, ‘Aww, man.’ But Marquise is a big boy. No one likes getting hit – well, Elijah Hood may like getting hit. I don’t like getting hit. But (Williams is) a tough guy.”

Williams is tougher mentally than when he arrived. When Fedora became UNC’s coach in January 2012, he knew Williams possessed the physical skills to lead the offense. The mental side of it eluded Williams.

He didn’t play much during the 2012 season. Then he had to leave school early in 2013, before eventually regaining the trust of coaches and teammates.

“It doesn’t mean that he still doesn’t make mistakes or anything,” Fedora said of Williams’ maturation. “But he understands now when a mistake is made, whether it’s him or anybody, he totally gets it. He understands it.

“I mean, the cliché that the game has slowed down – what it really means is a guy becomes comfortable and so his decision-making process (is better). The game hasn’t slowed down, but (Williams’) decision-making process is so much faster.”

For the first time since his sophomore year of high school, Williams said he is healthy. He played through constant, nagging pain last season, and through an assortment of minor ailments before.

Now there is no pain. And no quarterback competition. There is no working his way back, either, or working to regain trust.

Not that Williams is letting any of it go to his head. At least he says it isn’t.

“It’s nothing different,” he said of his approach now compared to the past. “I still have that mindset of going out and competing. And you can never be satisfied ... so I come out every day hungry like I was two years ago and last year.

“It’s fun when you’re competing. It’s not fun when just something’s handed to you.”

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