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UNC storylines: will Marquise Williams and the offense realize their potential?

UNC quarterback Marquise Williams last season produced good numbers despite a lack of consistent pass protection.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams last season produced good numbers despite a lack of consistent pass protection. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

The ACC's annual football media days – formally called the 2015 ACC Football Kickoff – starts next Monday in Pinehurst. You know the drill:

Reporters will ask questions about how much different things will be for teams season and coaches and players will talk about how much different things will be this season. We'll hear about how the arrival of that team's new coach has been the best thing ever, and about how on this team that player who was pretty good last season is ready to be an All-American this season. And so on and so on.

Amid all the clutter and cliches, though, there are some story lines worth following. Leading into the start of ACC media days, I'll be counting down what I deem to be (and so therefore are) North Carolina's most interesting storylines approaching the start of the preseason.

Today: will quarterback Marquise Williams and the offense realize their considerable potential?

North Carolina's offense, it seems, has two considerable advantages over its competition in the ACC. For one, the Tar Heels have by far the most experienced offensive line in the conference. And UNC has the most experienced starting quarterback in fifth-year senior Marquise Williams.

Williams enters his final season with 19 career starts, and he began starting roughly midway through the 2013 season after Bryn Renner suffered an injury in what turned out to be his final college game. During the past season and a half Williams has put together a lot of nice games and productive stretches, but consistency has been elusive.

Is this, then, the season when it finally comes together for him? Some of that will depend on his support. The offensive line, as I wrote about on Friday, didn't often offer him much protection a season ago, and it didn't do much for the running game, either. So the blocking has to improve. But so, too, must Williams' decision-making, accuracy and overall game management.

To be sure, Williams' numbers are impressive. He was second in the ACC last season, behind 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, with an average of 296.6 yards of total offense. He threw for 3,073 yards, ran for 783 yards and accounted for 34 touchdowns combined.

Williams' stats, as good as they are, don't tell the whole story, though. In five games last season he threw for less than 200 yards. UNC lost all five.

In those five games – against East Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, N.C. State and Rutgers – he threw a combined two touchdown passes (and three interceptions) and the passing game was never much of a factor. Those five games include the debacle of a defeat against N.C. State, in which Williams was knocked out of the game, and the equally ugly loss against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl.

Even when Williams has been “on,” coach Larry Fedora at times has seemed to have a difficult time praising Williams. Fedora rarely offers reporters much of a nuanced view of X's and O's but, reading between the lines, it's fair to wonder whether Fedora has been frustrated by Williams' decision-making.

Two things, at least, should increase Williams' productivity entering this season: For one, he'll no longer be subject to that wacky and fruitless early-game rotation with Mitch Trubisky. Second, Williams, who underwent off-season hip surgery that kept him out of spring practice, is now completely healthy. He wasn't last season.

Those two things, combined with better protection, could lead to a memorable season. But the surrounding talent, most of it, was around last season, too, with mixed results. The Tar Heels return 10 starters on offense and they don't lack for talent at the skill positions.

Wide receiver should be a position of strength, with veterans Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard. Running back is strong, too, with former heralded recruits T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood. The offense put up some good numbers last year but they ended the season with two clunkers that did a lot to cloud the memory of what came before.

Is this the year that it all comes together for UNC on offense? Is this the year it all comes together for Williams? The Tar Heels appear to have all the pieces in place, at least.

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