by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- Sometimes, it's hard to really appreciate something until you don't have it anymore.
That, redshirt sophomore Marquise Williams said, is what made his first start at quarterback for North Carolina on Saturday so special.
Last spring, the multi-faceted signal caller from Charlotte was still technically part of the Tar Heels' football team—but not really. Since he wasn't enrolled in classes (for reasons he doesn't want to discuss), he didn't participate in team workouts or play in the spring game, and he wasn't sure what the future would bring.
Back then, a 277-yard, two touchdown outing didn't seem all that probable.
But in retrospect, it was his semester of non-enrollment that made it possible.
"He's absolutely a different player,'' UNC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Blake Anderson said. "[Before], I think he was immature, he didn't really seriously prepare like I wanted him to, and he took things for granted a little bit, thought it was going to come easy. But in the spring, with football being taken away, and not knowing exactly what the future would hold ... I think that helped him mature."
Williams jokingly called last spring a "vacation."
It was more like a personal boot camp.
He remained in Chapel Hill and asked strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez for the schedule of what his teammates had to accomplish, and he did it on his own - timing his runs, tracking his weight. If the offensive players had to get up at 6 a.m., so did he. He asked his receivers to catch for him on the weekends. And he spent hour after hour watching film, sometimes not returning home until 1 a.m., in order to memorize the no-huddle schemes he had too-often failed to study just months before.
"It made me really catch up on the playbook, because that was a struggle last year, I wasn't really taking it serious,'' he said. "... I had to realize what I was missing. Football is a big part of my life, so I had to focus and really come back prepared."
Come fall camp, Williams was. Not only did he win the back-up position behind veteran starter Bryn Renner, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder contributed when he got chances early, including throwing his second career touchdown, against Middle Tennessee, last month.
When he learned last Friday he'd be making his first career start because of an injury to Renner's left foot, Williams took it in stride, confidently displaying both his passing (23-for-35) and running (he rushed for 56 yards) ability. He wasn't perfect, tossing two interceptions, and the Tar Heels lost the game at Virginia Tech 27-17. But Renner called Williams' leadership "phenomenal." And Anderson said once Renner returns - the senior practiced with the first team Tuesday, and said he plans to play when UNC hosts Miami on Oct. 17 - Williams likely will play an expanded role.
The back-up insisted Tuesday that the Tar Heels remain "Bryn Renner's team," but sprinkling in Williams' more-versatile approach more often, coaches figure, could give opposing defenses two different worries behind center. And that could give 1-4 UNC the jump-start it needs.
"He's earned some opportunities," Anderson said of Williams. "....The way he handled himself on Saturday, the way he made decisions and responded from bad plays, lets you know you can integrate him more, and we can create more stress on the defense."
Run or pass, start or spell, Williams said he just appreciates having the chance to really be part of the team again. Although he wasn't enrolled in classes for a semester, he said he still learned - about football and himself.
"Once you sit out, and you realize you're missing something you love, it's tough,'' he said. " I had to overcome adversity - and I think that was the best thing for me. Because I feel like I got more mature, and I took what I had more seriously than before, and as a blessing."