North Carolina coach Larry Fedora met with reporters earlier today for his weekly Monday press conference. Some news and notes, thoughts and quotes:
MARQUISE WILLIAMS HAS COME A WAYS
I’m likely to be writing a story about this later in the week, so I’ll go into more depth then. For now, though, it’s important to note just how far Marquise Williams, the third-year sophomore quarterback, has come in less than a year. Williams served an academic-related suspension last spring and wasn’t enrolled in school.
Fedora said he wasn’t sure what to expect from Williams when he returned to the team in the summer. Williams, though, quickly made a positive impression.
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“When we started camp, after him missing the spring, and then we’re not with him in the summer, it was obvious to 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. We really didn’t. So that was impressive to me, that I knew that he had put in the time and the effort away from us, and it meant a lot to him. And that’s when I knew that it meant so much to Marquise – that he was going to have a chance.”
The coaching staff clearly has some confidence in Williams. And Williams’ confidence has to be growing, too, with how he’s played.
His ability as a runner has made a big difference in the Tar Heels’ offense, too.
“Yeah, it’s made a world of difference for us, because now that he is a run threat, a defense has to always take into account that he’s a threat,” Fedora said. “It opens up things in the play-action passing game. It opens up – it just opens up a lot of things, you know. And then when you have teams that like to, just last week, that focus on Eric so much, it gave us a lot of things that we don’t normally get in a game.”
FROM 1-5 TO A GAME AWAY FROM .500
It wasn’t that long ago that UNC was 1-5, and coming off the most heartbreaking of defeats against Miami, which scored a game-winning touchdown in that final seconds of that Thursday night game. Since then, though? The Tar Heels haven’t lost.
Fedora today spoke of the challenge of keeping the players motivated and believing during more difficult times.
“It’s difficult,” Fedora said. “But it’s part of what you do. As a coaching staff, it’s easier for us because we’re isolated, really. We’re in this building and those rooms where we are, for a lot of hours. We really don’t know what’s going on in the real world most of the time.
“The players are out – they’re hearing it. They hear it, they see it. People are talking all the time. So to get those guys to stay focused is, first of all, give the staff credit, because they’ve done a tremendous job of keeping those guys believing in what we’re doing. Believing in each other, and continuing to work hard.”
That’s one thing you can say about the Tar Heels: They didn’t quit when things were rough. Well, outside of the ECU game, at least. Players and coaches agree that UNC didn’t show up that day. That was troubling, but since then effort hasn’t been an issue.
ON THE RETURN OF SHAKEEL RASHAD
Fedora announced before the start of the season that Shakeel Rashad, a sophomore bandit (the hybrid linebacker) would miss the season due to an injury. But there was Rashad on Saturday, seeing his first action of the season. He finished with two tackles.
Fedora described Rashad’s return this way:
“He was kind of out of sight, out of mind, for me, you know, working his tail off. And (trainer) Scott (Trulock is) saying, you know what, this kid – he’s really coming on. He’s way ahead of schedule.
“And then when it was (when) we had a decision to make, it was like all right, can he help us win. And he wanted to play. … So we’re glad to have him back.”
It’s an interesting decision to return, for sure. Rashad basically traded an entire year of eligibility for the opportunity to play in four games – five, assuming UNC makes a bowl game. But it says something about him, too, that he’d want to come back and play, even if it’s for less than half a season.
ABOUT THE PASS DEFENSE
Don’t look now, but UNC’s pass defense has become pretty good in recent weeks. Since making Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas look a lot better than he normally is, the Tar Heels have allowed just one passing touchdown in their past four games.
During that span, they’ve intercepted eight passes – including two more on Saturday. UNC allowed 59 yards passing against Boston College, 176 against N.C. State and 204 against Virginia. A few things have gone into the dramatic improvement:
For one, the level of competition has decreased a bit. That always helps. Second, UNC is generating more pressure up front, which has led to some hurried, quick throws. Third, the Tar Heels have eliminated those blown coverages other teams exploited early on.
“Just confidence,” Fedora said. “I think confidence. I think we’re doing a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback, also, and they’re not having to cover forever. But the confidence alone, and we’re getting some picks. And that builds your confidence, and now you want the team to throw the ball.”
That was the case at halftime the other day, Fedora said, when it was clear Virginia would have to throw a lot in the second half. The Tar Heels’ secondary, he said, was excited about being tested. Big change from earlier this season.