North Carolina

UNC's early quarterback rotation hasn't been productive

UNC quarterback Marquise Williams (12) works to get by Liberty's Alpha Jalloh (38) and Kenny Scott (14) during the game in August.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams (12) works to get by Liberty's Alpha Jalloh (38) and Kenny Scott (14) during the game in August. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams knows that no matter what he does or how he plays, he’s likely to watch his team’s third offensive series from the sideline. That, he said, has pretty much been predetermined.

“Yeah,” Williams said, nodding and explaining how backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky enters on the third series. “Always going to be the third series he can come in, and he’s got to do what he’s got to do.”

What if Williams, in his fourth year at UNC, began with two long touchdown passes? What if the offense was rolling, and the team had momentum? It hasn’t happened that way, not hardly, but what if? Williams laughed at the question.

“Yeah,” he said. “(Trubisky will) still come in the third series.”

Coach Larry Fedora insists that Williams is the starting quarterback, and that he’s not at risk to lose the position. Even so, Trubisky, a second-year freshman, has entered every game on UNC’s third offensive series.

Then, when that series ends, Trubisky goes out and Williams comes back. It was that way Saturday at East Carolina, when UNC scored 10 points on Williams’ first two possessions, then switched to Trubisky.

Trubisky has played at other times, too, but the early rotation on those third and fourth drives through three games has not been productive. UNC has scored one touchdown on those six drives.

Fedora has said he doesn’t believe the quarterback rotation – however brief – negatively affects the offense. If he thought it did, he said, he wouldn’t do it. The rotation, though, hasn’t clearly seemed to benefit the Tar Heels, though Fedora said it helps Trubisky gain experience.

Fedora also indicated this week that he had promised Trubisky early playing time. Trubisky and Williams competed for the starting position throughout the preseason, though neither apparently separated himself clearly from the other.

“There are things that could happen that take us out of that plan, yeah,” Fedora said when asked if he’d consider keeping Williams in on the third series. “But yeah, I mean, I don’t like telling a kid one thing and then doing something else unless something drastic comes up where there’s a reason for it.”

Through three games, UNC is averaging 5.27 yards per play on its third drive. Trubisky led the Tar Heels to a touchdown on his first drive in a victory against Liberty and threw an interception the next week in a close victory against San Diego State.

Overall, Trubisky has completed 5 of 10 passes for 58 yards on his opening drives. Williams, meanwhile, has watched, waiting to come back.

“Sometimes you can get out of rhythm, but most times, it’s not a factor,” Williams said. “A guy needs to get his experience and I’m down for it. Me, as a quarterback, when he’s in the game, I’m locked in. I’m seeing what the defense is doing, so that’s what keeps my rhythm going.”

The numbers tell a different story, though. UNC’s offense has stalled each time Williams has re-entered after watching Trubisky run the offense.

On those three drives – all of which ended in punts – the Tar Heels averaged 3.19 yards per play and Williams has completed 3 of 8 attempts for 15 yards.

Neither quarterback has said the early rotation adversely affects his performance. Trubisky, though, acknowledged that he feels an added sense of pressure when he enters the game on the third series.

“I would say it’s a little bit more pressure than usual,” he said. “Because in order to get another series, I think I’ve got to play good that first series to get another one later – to show them I could run the offense while I’m in and stuff like that.”

The offense hasn’t been better or worse with one quarterback or the other. The Tar Heels have had their issues regardless of who has been at quarterback.

Williams has missed his share of open receivers down the field. So has Trubisky, who on his first drive Saturday threw two incompletions before the Tar Heels settled for their second short field goal of the first quarter.

“Throwing the ball down the field and being accurate isn’t a problem,” Trubisky said. “It’s more my footwork in the pocket right now.

“I could stand in there all day and throw the ball down the field, but when stuff starts to move around in front of me in the pocket, I just need to settle down my feet and deliver the ball like I know how.”

It wasn’t often UNC had momentum during its 70-41 defeat at East Carolina, but there were times, briefly, when the Tar Heels did, and when it seemed like they might be able to build a significant early lead. One came with about nine minutes to play in the first quarter.

UNC took over near midfield leading 10-7, its third possession of the game, and Trubisky entered.

The drive, as it turned out, was successful – at least compared to Trubisky’s other two first appearances. He completed 3 of 6 attempts and led UNC to inside the Pirates’ 5-yard line, where the Tar Heels settled for a field goal.

Trubisky entered the game early in the second quarter with UNC leading 21-20. The Tar Heels went three-and-out, didn’t score the rest of the half and allowed ECU two touchdowns before halftime.

Then Williams, on the first drive of the second half, threw an interception that ECU returned for a touchdown. The Pirates’ rout was on and as the game became more one-sided, Trubisky played the Tar Heels’ final three possessions.

Amid the defeat against ECU – the worst of Fedora’s tenure at UNC – the Tar Heels’ limitations on defense were obvious. Somewhat lost, though, were the struggles on offense.

UNC didn’t score a traditional offensive touchdown – without the use of a trick play – until the third quarter. The Tar Heels averaged a season-low 3.72 yards per rush, and a modest 5.35 yards per play.

Williams and Trubisky have been hindered by a lack of protection. That problem won’t be any less pronounced Saturday, when UNC – with two starting offensive lineman hurt and likely unable to play – faces Clemson, which has perhaps the best defensive line in the ACC.

Early on in that game, regardless of what happens on the first two possessions, the Tar Heels will likely switch quarterbacks. Williams will likely come out, and Trubisky in, and then they’ll switch again and, perhaps, keep switching.

“If I looked at it and evaluated and felt like it was hurting us offensively, obviously I wouldn’t do it,” Fedora said. “But I don’t think that’s the case.”

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