CHAPEL HILL — When news began to spread on Tuesday that North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner would miss the rest of the season because of an injured left shoulder, Marquise Williams said people began telling him the same thing: This is your team.
Even Renner said he told Williams, the third-year sophomore from Charlotte, that the Tar Heels were now his, in the sense that any team belongs to its starting quarterback. Williams was still trying to grasp the concept on Tuesday night. He didnt yet feel comfortable with it.
Its still Bryn Renners team, and Im playing for his team, said Williams, who is preparing to make his second start of the season on Saturday, against Virginia. Im playing for his role, and thats one thing about it. People are going to say, This is your team now. It might be my team as a starter. But overall, its Bryn Renners team.
That might be true in a spiritual sense. Renner is a fifth-year senior, and so his injury means hes played for the final time in a UNC uniform. Amid a season full of disappointments at UNC, the loss of Renner is the most emotionally crushing blow yet.
In a different sense, though, this is indeed Williams team, because his performance is likely to go the furthest toward determining whether UNC rallies to become bowl eligible. The Tar Heels lost five of their first six games, and four in a row at one point but a two-game winning streak has optimism spreading.
Offensively, UNC used a two-quarterback rotation its last three games, with Renner starting and Williams entering the game on the third series. The quarterbacks alternated possessions, and sometimes plays, after that, and the system seemed to be working more smoothly during the past two games.
But now Williams will lead the offense by himself. And unlike in his first start, which came early last month at Virginia Tech in place of Renner, who sat out that game with a foot injury, Williams now has the full playbook at his disposal.
Earlier in the season, Williams only ran certain plays out of certain packages. In the months since, UNCs coaching staff, and especially offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, has publicly expressed more confidence in Williams.
It helps me a lot, because Ive been doing my stuff and also the whole playbook, Williams said. Coming back, studying the playbook in the offseason ... it helps me a lot. And also with (Renner), with him encouraging me to study the game more, take the game more seriously its been (a help) for me.
Williams has proven himself as a runner, and has gained at least 51 yards rushing in three of the Tar Heels past four games. His mobility has been an asset to an offense with an offensive line has struggled to create space for the running game.
As a passer Williams is more unproven. In that first start, at Virginia Tech, he threw two interceptions one of which effectively ended the game in the fourth quarter. He hasnt thrown an interception in either of UNCs past two games, but he has completed only about 50 percent of his passes during that stretch, too.
Still, Anderson expressed confidence that Williams is capable of leading the offense in all aspects.
Im glad that weve got Marquise as many reps as weve gotten him, and thats probably the reason that we did, Anderson said. We just felt like the chips were going to fall at some point, one way or the other, whether it be Quise or Bryn go down, you just felt like you needed to have them both ready.
So I feel more comfortable about that than I do what Bryns going through.
Renners injury has had a forward-moving domino effect on the depth chart at quarterback. Williams moved up, and his backup will be Kanler Coker, a redshirt freshman who has never played. Beyond those two, the depth chart becomes a bit murky.
Mitch Trubisky, who arrived at UNC as one of the most heralded members of the Tar Heels recruiting class, competed for the No. 2 quarterback position in the preseason, and he nearly beat out Williams for that spot. At this point its unlikely Trubisky would play, even in the direst of circumstances, because hed lose a year of eligibility.
Renners injury forced Anderson to develop an emergency contingency plan.
It would really depend on where and when and how (an injury) happened, Anderson said. The earlier it would happen, obviously, the more likely Mitch Trubisky goes and he plays. The later it happens, then Caleb Pressley. I mean, weve got four guys on the roster, and well have an emergency plan with (running back) A.J. (Blue) or somebody.
The hope, though, is that Williams stays healthy, and that he thrives in the unfamiliar position of being the player everyone looks toward for leadership and production.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter