NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of CAROLINA: The Magazine.
by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- This story was going to be about the evolution of the Tar Heels' two-quarterback approach—senior Bryn Renner as the sure-armed and savvy senior, sophomore Marquise Williams as the jaunty and juking sophomore. Renner with the 8,221 career passing yards and the bread-and-butter skinny post, Williams with the 4.6 forty-yard time and the feet and frame to run the inside zone.
Renner's ankle injury suffered against East Carolina in late September sidelined him for the Virginia Tech game the following week, giving Williams the stage against the school Carolina out-fought for Williams' services back in the fall of 2010. It was a mixed performance, certainly, but Williams showed enough poise, moxie and throwing acumen in a 27-17 defeat that head coach Larry Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson agreed that an elixir of Renner & Williams offered the Tar Heel offense its best chance going through the season.
Williams threw for 277 yards against a stout Hokie secondary that was yielding only 138 yards a game through four outings. "The way Marquise handled himself and the dynamic he brings to the game, he'll help us," Anderson said. "We'll integrate him into the game. He creates some issues for the defense running the ball that we don't get from Bryn."
We'd seen this duet before—Jason Stanicek and Mike Thomas in the early 1990s, Chris Keldorf and Oscar Davenport in 1997, Ronald Curry and Darian Durant in 2001, T.J. Yates and Cam Sexton in 2008. Often injury precipitated the No. 2 getting his shot, as with gazelle-like Davenport taking over for Keldorf and his sprained ankle in the 1996 Gator Bowl and Sexton engineering wins over Miami and Notre Dame in 2008 after Yates went down against Virginia Tech with a shoulder injury.
Sometimes, the starter falters and the backup gets his entrée. Witness Curry's ineffectiveness in the 2001 opener at Oklahoma and Durant's second-half productivity, helping make a first-half rout respectable in a 41-27 loss. That left coach John Bunting to wonder afterward, "Do I have a quarterback controversy on my hands?"
This would not be a controversy, though, as Renner saw that Williams did indeed add a twist to the offense, and Williams certainly was happy as any playing time was better than no playing time. "Bryn's attitude has been phenomenal," Anderson said after the dual-QB system worked well in a 34-10 win over Boston College, sparking the Heels' current four-game win streak. "No fifth-year senior wants to come off the field. No quarterback I've ever known wants to come off the field. I think he realizes with all the struggles we've had with so many new bodies at so many different positions, Marquise does create some opportunity for us that he doesn't provide. He's handled it better than you could expect."
But then a funny (sad) thing happened on the way to the 2013 climax of the Tar Heels potentially running the table and sneaking their way up the ACC Coastal Division pecking order: Renner was bounced for good with a shoulder injury suffered at NC State in early November, leaving the starter's job solely in Williams' lap. Hindsight being 20/20, the move to let Williams take 30-40 percent of the snaps against Miami, BC and State proved prophetic.
"We went through the whole season last year with Bryn not missing a game," Anderson said. "The law of averages says that's not going to happen two years in a row. After the Virginia Tech game, with how well Quise integrated into the offense, we felt like it was the right thing to do to continue to keep him in there. We knew there was a chance he'd play an extended role."
To commemorate his start against Virginia on the second Saturday in November, Williams donned Renner's jersey No. 2 to recognize the friendship and mentorship Renner had provided Williams in what can often be a dicey undercurrent: each player wants the Tar Heels to win, but each player wants to be a participant—and not a spectator—when the final whistle blows. It's a competitive environment. Renner teared up after his surgery when told of Williams' tribute. "I'm doing it for you, because you were all I had as a 17-year-old puppy coming along," Williams told him.
"It's like Bryn has passed the team on to Marquise," Fedora said. "Marquise wanted to honor Bryn, like James Hurst did wearing Brennan Williams' 73 last year. It was a way to publicly honor him. But we also know we have to move on and play the next game. I have complete comfort knowing Marquise gives us a chance to win the next game."
The next game found Williams going back to his No. 12 jersey and providing the Tar Heels a spark on the road at Pittsburgh in a 34-27 win. Twice in the first half, Williams dropped back to throw, didn't find a receiver he liked and pulled the ball down—once going up the middle, a second time toward the left sideline, and both times finishing the scoring play off with a jitter-juke that left a Panther defender confused, contorted and grasping at air. What Williams lacks in pure passing acumen he makes up for with a better fit to the Fedora/Anderson offensive template of having a running quarterback.
"Quise is very elusive, he's fast and deceptively strong," Tar Heel linebacker Darius Lipford said after Williams' first start in Blacksburg. "A couple of Virginia Tech guys saw that in the first half. I saw him lower his shoulder on a defensive tackle and knock him off his feet."
"Quise brings a change. He brings confusion to the defense," adds tight end Eric Ebron. "He brings things other people can't match up against."
It's ironic that Williams has found his niche in Carolina's up-tempo spread after first being attracted to Carolina under the Butch Davis/John Shoop regime because he wanted to play in an NFL drop-back scheme. Coming out of Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, Williams ran a shotgun attack and didn't want to be stereotyped as an athletic quarterback who looks to run at the blink of an eye.
One of his favorite NFL quarterbacks at the time was Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, a prototypical tall, strong-armed, drop-back quarterback. "A lot of people doubt me, coming from a shotgun system most of my high school career," Williams said after announcing for Carolina in the summer of 2010, before his senior season. "I knew Coach Shoop would teach me a lot. If I want to play in the NFL one day, I need to learn the pro-style in terms of playing under center."
Williams had to endure the onslaught of negative publicity surrounding the NCAA investigation beginning in August 2010 and the crescendo of pricks and darts that came the Tar Heels' way in recruiting circles. Williams flirted seriously in the home stretch with Virginia Tech, but in the end renewed his vows to the Tar Heels, talking of the strong bond already established with "my boys" like fellow recruiting targets Ebron and T.J. Thorpe.
He enrolled at Chapel Hill in January 2011. "Schools came to my high school almost every week, saying, 'Why do you want to go to a school that's going on probation?'" Williams said early in his Chapel Hill matriculation. "It got under my skin. The school is the best academic school you'll ever see. That hurt me. You can't tell me where my heart wants to go. I wanted to come here all along."
Williams was redshirted in 2011, played in a limited role as back-up to Renner in 2012 and then missed the spring semester and spring football in 2013 because of an academic suspension. It was during that time that Williams realized he'd taken football and his athletic ability for granted and saw it could vanish in a poof if he didn't take a quantum leap in maturity—both on the field and off it.
"Once you lose something, you have to wake up," Williams says. "I felt like football was everything to me. Bryn always told me I have to take the game more seriously. Last year I didn't really take it serious, not like I should have. I just didn't think I would play much. When the adversity hit this spring, I went home and studied the playbook, worked out on my own, did what I had to do make myself better. It made me stronger, made me believe you can never give up. There will always be adversity in life, and it can be a good thing."
While Williams was sequestered at home in Charlotte, the Tar Heels welcomed a new freshman in Mitch Trubisky, who enrolled in January and quickly moved up the pecking order with Williams' absence and Kanler Coker missing time with arm soreness. "Quise heard what everyone else heard, that Mitch Trubisky had a great spring," Anderson says. "He knew he had a fight on his hands."
Williams surprised Fedora and Anderson in August when he showed no slippage in skills from the previous fall and, in fact, had gotten better on his own. "He was ahead of where he was coming out of last season," Fedora says. "We didn't expect that. It was impressive to me that he put in the time and effort away from the program. At that point, I knew Marquise was going to have a chance. I did not expect him to be at the level he was."
Anderson remembers having to chide Williams' effort and focus at times during the fall of 2012 and says that changed in the new year. "He was kind of silly and giggly. He didn't really know how to be the backup a year ago," Anderson says. "He just thought he would never have to play. He was a freshman and acted like it. In fall camp, he competed better, he took drill work more serious. The competition was really good. You could feel the tension in the room starting out. Mitch felt he had earned the spot, and Quise was not as comfortable as he had been the year before with no one pressuring him. That was really significant. It helped Marquise."
With two games left on the schedule, Williams is completing 58 percent of his passes for nearly 100 yards a game and is the team's leading rusher with 326 net yards and 36.2 yards a game. He's thrown for eight TDs and run for four. And he's received two passes for 52 yards and one score.
It all speaks to balance, productivity and multiplicity. And don't look now, but the Heels are 4-2 since the East Carolina loss. It's hardly the story anyone planned, but so far, the ending has promise.