On Saturdays during the past three months, North Carolina’s defense has not encountered a player like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. The Tar Heels’ defense has not played against a quarterback who can throw like Watson, or run like him, or lead an offense like him.
At least not in any game. Yet UNC’s defensive players look at Watson and see plenty that’s familiar. They see a lot of what they see in practice every day, when they compete against their own quarterback, Marquise Williams.
There are more similarities than differences in the quarterbacks, who on Saturday in Charlotte will lead the North Carolina and Clemson offenses in the ACC Championship game. Both have excelled throwing the deep pass this season. Both are capable of escaping the pocket for long, momentum-swinging runs.
Both, UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said, “are dynamic playmakers that can run and throw the ball.”
“So there’s a lot of similarities between the two,” he said, “and it helps that we’ve faced a guy like Marquise all throughout the spring and summer and fall camp.”
The defensive players at Clemson can say the same. And have, at points this week.
Asked about Williams, UNC’s fifth-year senior, Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said, “I’ve seen him similar as Deshaun.”
“Both great quarterbacks,” Lawson said. “Williams, you can pass the ball and also make plays just like Deshaun. So they are similar players, very similar to me. We’ve just got to be ready to defend him.”
For the Tigers and the Tar Heels’ defenses, the best preparation for what they’ll see on Saturday might have been what they’ve endured in practices, and in preseason camp, during the past two seasons.
Williams, 23, is now in his third season as UNC’s full-time starter. Watson, 20, a sophomore, made his first start in September 2014 in a 50-35 victory against UNC. It’s a game Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora, and those players who were around to experience it, haven’t forgotten.
“He torched us for six touchdowns last year, probably had the best game of his career going into that first game,” Fedora said earlier this week of Watson. “But that was the 2014 team, and we’re a different football team. I can promise you that.”
UNC is different, in large part, because Williams is different. He has become a stronger leader, a better passer. He hasn’t received the national attention that has surrounded Watson, who will likely be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, but Williams’ numbers are similar to the ones Watson has produced.
Among ACC players, Watson (3,979 total yards) and Williams (3,391) rank 1-2 in total offense. Watson, who on Wednesday was named the ACC’s Player of the Year, has thrown for about 600 more yards this season, but Williams averages slightly more yards per attempt (9) than Watson (8.7).
And they’ve both spent plenty of time frustrating defenses with their ability to elude pressure and make plays on the run. Williams has run for 786 yards this season, while Watson has run for 756 yards. Williams has run for 10 touchdowns, while Watson has run for nine touchdowns.
And so they possess similar playing styles and similar statistics, and they’ve led their team to similar success. Both teams enter Saturday undefeated in the ACC. Both teams are ranked among the top 10 nationally.
Both teams are preparing to face the best quarterback they’ve seen this season. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney earlier this week described Watson as “the best quarterback in the country.” There have been moments this season when Williams might have been deserving of such praise, too.
But how are they different? Fedora earlier this week attempted to contrast Williams and Watson.
“Deshaun, comparing him to Marquise, he’s a guy that he can make every throw there is,” Fedora said. “He looks like he’s very poised for a young guy, for a sophomore. Nothing rattles him.
“He runs the ball extremely well, you know, and I would say ‘Quise can do all of those things, too. Probably the only difference, ‘Quise may be a little thicker, and ‘Quise is older.”
If anything, that is the difference: Williams’ age, and the paths both players took to where they’ll intersect on Saturday. Watson arrived at Clemson a heralded freshman, made his first start a month into his college career and promptly celebrated the moment by throwing six touchdown passes.
He went through some injury woes a season ago but, nonetheless, Watson’s trajectory, if represented in graphic form, would like a successful company’s stock report: an arrow soaring diagonally to the right in mostly a straight line. Williams’ journey, though, has been arduous.
He arrived at UNC amid considerable expectations, too, but also just in time to witness firsthand the firing of former coach Butch Davis. Williams didn’t see the field his freshman season and redshirted. He played sparingly in Fedora’s first season and found himself out of school the next spring for academic reasons.
There were doubts then about whether Williams, a former standout at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, would ever return to UNC. He worked his way back, transformed himself, matured, eventually earned the starting quarterback job and, finally, developed into the player he is now – but not before a difficult start to the season when he threw three interceptions in a loss against South Carolina.
And now here he is on the precipice of living a dream.
“I remember back in middle school, I used to play (video game) college football and you’d get to create your own player,” Williams said, “And I’d create my player to play for the Tar Heels and I’m the quarterback, trying to get to the ACC championship.
“Now to get this opportunity in real life is something special. And so much adversity for me (and fellow seniors) Landon (Turner), Jeff Schoettmer, Shak (Rashad) and Sam Smiley, all those guys have been through, it’s really a dream come true for us.”
Whether the dream has a happy ending could depend in large part on which quarterback outperforms the other. Or, rather, which defense has the most success stopping the other.
For both defenses the task will be familiar, but different. In games Clemson hasn’t played a quarterback like Williams. In games UNC hasn’t played a quarterback like Watson. In practices, though, both defenses have had plenty of experience with what they’ll encounter on Saturday night.
2015 season stats.