CHAPEL HILL — When North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams left school last spring because of an academic suspension, Larry Fedora wasn’t sure what to expect upon his return. Some teammates weren’t even sure he’d be back.
Players who leave like that, under those circumstances, sometimes disappear into a void, only to reappear at a junior college or somewhere else, if at all. That’s what Jabari Price, a senior cornerback, thought about when Williams left.
“Normally when that happens to guys … they normally don’t come back, to be honest,” Price said this week. “For him to come back and play the way he’s been playing has been great for us. We all thought that since Marquise was leaving that maybe Mitch (Trubisky) was going to be the next guy up, instead of him redshirting.
“But Marquise, actually, the suspension didn’t bother him. I feel like he’s gotten better since the suspension.”
After more than two years of waiting for a chance, Williams is the Tar Heels’ unquestioned starting quarterback. It’s a role he received in part because of the season-ending injury Bryn Renner suffered two weeks ago in a victory at N.C. State. Even so, that Williams is playing is a victory.
He arrived at UNC from Mallard Creek High in Charlotte as one of the Tar Heels’ top prospects in the 2011 recruiting class. He sat out his freshman season, under interim coach Everett Withers, and then, it seemed Williams caught his first break when UNC hired Fedora.
Williams’ physical ability – and especially his mobility – appeared a perfect fit for Fedora’s up-tempo spread offense. Williams, though, never seriously challenged Renner for the starting position in the spring of 2012, or later that year in preseason practice.
Williams played sparingly last season in a special package that mostly relied on his running. Then came the suspension, which caused him to miss spring practice. Even though he was out of school, Williams said this week he made it a point to remain a part of the team.
So he was on campus for workouts. He attended spring practices even though he couldn’t participate.
“I came back all the time,” Williams said. “I was in the weight room all the time, sometimes. But I was here, around. To let people know that I was caring, and that I wasn’t going to be that person that, ‘Oh, he’s out so he’s not going to show no support.’ I was always going to show my support.”
A lesson learned
While Williams couldn’t practice in the spring, Trubisky, a heralded prospect from Ohio, could. He enrolled early, went through offseason conditioning workouts and spring practice and emerged as the No.2 quarterback behind Renner.
When Williams returned to practice in early August, Trubisky was ahead of him on the depth chart and he had to work just to regain his position as the backup.
Fedora admitted this week that he wondered when, or even if, Williams might ever play a prominent role for the Tar Heels.
Then preseason practice began and, gradually, optimism replaced Fedora’s doubt.
“When we started camp, after him missing the spring and then we’re not with him in the summer, it was obvious to (offensive coordinator) Blake (Anderson) and I that he had worked really hard during that time,” Fedora said. “When he got to camp, he was ahead of where he was coming out of last season. And we didn’t expect that.”
The suspension and the time away, Williams said, served as a warning: Either get it together or face the consequences that come with a squandered opportunity. He said he “had to come back and be stronger than I was the year before.”
Renner’s warning helps Williams change
That was true in more ways than one. On the field. In the classroom, especially.
Williams said that during his suspension, he relied on advice from his father, and from Renner, whom he has described as a brother-like figure. When Williams arrived two years ago, he wasn’t known for his seriousness. His laughter, his jokes? He was known for those things. But not for taking much of anything seriously.
Renner, Williams said, even tried to force the point last season. Renner often told Williams he was a play away from being the starting quarterback.
“And I didn’t really realize it,” Williams said. “But he kept telling me this year, ‘Little bro, you have to take the game more serious.’ And I took it more serious and I realized that, like you say, you never know when his last play is going to be. So I have to be ready.”
Williams made his first career start on his 21st birthday, Oct.5 at Virginia Tech. The two quarterbacks rotated, with Renner still starting, during the next three games.
Now Williams is living a scenario Renner warned him about. Williams, who wore Renner’s No.2 Saturday during the 45-10 victory against Virginia, will play a large role – perhaps the largest – in the Tar Heels’ quest to become bowl eligible after their 1-5 start. A victory Saturday at Pittsburgh would be the Tar Heels’ fourth consecutive, and it would even their record.
Since Williams’ suspension, Fedora has noticed a dramatic difference. So have Williams’ teammates.
“He’s growing up,” Price said. “He’s not the little kid from Mallard Creek anymore. Instead of wearing No.2, he’s actually playing like No.2 as far as his decision-making. He’s actually become a voice on this team, and he’s not just sitting back and letting – just going with the flow anymore.
“He’s starting to be a vocal leader. That’s what we’re going to need from him on this last stretch.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter