UNC quarterback Marquise Williams comes home to Belk Bowl a winner

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

— For the past week, Marquise Williams has been back in the place where it all began for him – where he started playing football in the fourth grade and where he became a high school All-American and where he came back to turn his life around.

At the thought of being back here, in Charlotte, Williams on Friday smiled and shook his head.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “It’s been great to see my family and friends, and it’s something you always dreamed of, is being back in Charlotte,” and playing in a bowl game.

Williams, the third-year sophomore quarterback at North Carolina, grew up in Charlotte, where the Tar Heels on Saturday will play against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. This is where he learned to play the game that earned him a scholarship to UNC, and where he retreated when he temporarily lost his chance to play college football.

That happened nearly a year ago, when an academic issue forced Williams out of school in the 2013 spring semester. He returned home, briefly, and lived at times with his father, Bernard Whiteside, who drives trucks, and has routes all over the Carolinas and up into Virginia.

Sometimes Whiteside drives to Raleigh, he said, or down into South Carolina. He wakes at 5 a.m., he said, and by then sometimes Williams would already be up, preparing for his workouts while he wasn’t in school.

“He’d go out and run,” Whiteside said on Friday. “Then he’d call me when he was done, ‘I’m back in the house.’  ”

Where Williams wanted to be most of all, though, he couldn’t. He remained a presence at North Carolina, and worked out with teammates and on his own. Yet when the Tar Heels went through spring practice, Williams could only watch from the sideline, wishing and waiting.

Though he lived at times with his father, Williams said he spent most of that semester in Chapel Hill. He didn’t want to stray too far from where he wanted to be.

“(I) always focused on what I needed to do,” Williams said. “I put in more time than I ever put in my life. On the weekends, a lot of guys could say, you coming down to party? Nah, I have to focus on what I need. I came back to focus on playing football and just doing what I needed to do. I’d go out on Saturdays and throw the ball around.

“You might catch me out there (on the practice fields) at 9 p.m. working on footwork and everything.”

Williams’ failures in the classroom put him in a difficult position a year ago. He admits that he wasn’t much of a student in football, either.

Larry Fedora, North Carolina’s second-year coach, didn’t recruit Williams. Fedora knew of him back then, though. While Fedora was the coach at Southern Miss, Williams made a name for himself at Mallard Creek High.

The recruiting experts ranked Williams among the best “dual-threat” quarterbacks – those with a talent for running and passing – in the country. He was, in high school, the kind of quarterback that might have seemed a model fit for Fedora’s spread offense. Fedora said he knew he didn’t have a chance to recruit Williams.

Then in early 2012 Fedora became the coach at UNC. Williams didn’t necessarily make a poor impression that first spring, but it could have been better.

“I just think that Bryn (Renner) was established,” Fedora said. “Marquise probably was playing that role a little bit of ‘Bryn’s the guy and I’m backing him up.’ I would have loved to see him grasp things earlier and take off with it earlier, but it just didn’t happen.”

Fedora wasn’t sure what to expect when Williams left school. Would he make it back? And, if so, how would the time away affect him?

By the time Williams worked his way back into school, he had been supplanted on the depth chart by Mitch Trubisky, a freshman quarterback from Ohio. Had Renner’s season-ending injury happened in September instead of November, Trubisky might have earned the starting job.

Gradually, though, Williams earned Fedora’s trust. He proved himself to his teammates. Always a natural jokester and cutup, Williams showed off a more mature, serious side, too.

“He’s starting to figure out his switch,” said junior tight end Eric Ebron of Williams. “Sometimes you can turn it on, sometimes you can turn it off. I had to figure that out myself. Sometimes it’s good to be goofy, but at certain times it’s not.

“And he’s figured out his switch – he’s figured out when to turn it off, when to become serious and focus on one thing.”

When a foot injury kept Renner out of North Carolina’s game at Virginia Tech on Oct. 5, Williams made his first college start. The Tar Heels lost that game, which coincided with Williams’ 21st birthday, but Williams perhaps exceeded expectations while running a scaled-down, slower version of the offense.

Over time, Williams became more comfortable with the play calls and the reads. Renner suffered his season-ending shoulder injury on Nov. 2 in a victory at N.C. State, and Fedora and his coaching staff then turned over the offense – the complete offense, and not just a scaled-down version of it – to Williams.

“I don’t know if (there) was a turning point as much as just each week you saw him progress,” Fedora said. “Each week he got better. Each week he was able to handle more. Each week he was better in practice. And so that gave us a comfort level that we could just keep growing. And that’s why we’re here.”

Fedora was talking about the postseason. After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels didn’t appear to have much of a shot at making a bowl. They made it. When Williams left school last spring, it might not have seemed like he much of a chance, either, of playing a significant role at UNC. He made it, too.

There were plenty who doubted Williams. His father wasn’t among them.

“I’m proud of him, but I never had any doubt,” Whiteside said. “… When you have a strong family like he has, he wasn’t going to go backwards.”

North Carolina has been in Charlotte for the past week, preparing for the Belk Bowl. The Tar Heels have practiced at Mallard Creek, Williams’ old school. He has seen familiar faces and friends, and been reminded of a time when the future seemed so bright.

Being back home has also served to remind Williams of his journey. The path he has taken to this point hasn’t been a straight one. There were unexpected detours. They tested his faith at times, but also provided motivation.

“Looking back a couple of months ago, I never thought I’d play a down this year, to be honest with you,” Williams said. “And now I’m starting for the North Carolina Tar Heels in a bowl game in Charlotte, North Carolina. And that’s something huge for me.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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