Marquise Williams eyes UNC’s starting quarterback job

Video by Alexis Jordan and Kendall Atkins

UNC Quarterback Marquise Williams reflects on his career as a Tar Heel and how he's preparing for this upcoming football season.

He sat in the Kenan Stadium locker room and waited.

A typical Tuesday, Marquise Williams counted down the minutes until practice.

But little did he know, his day, his football career, his life was about to change. A new clock was about to start ticking.

Eric Ebron confidently approached Williams.

“You ready?” the tight end and Williams’ best friend asked.

Williams questioned what Ebron was talking about, letting out a smug laugh.

“It’s your time,” Ebron said.

Puzzled and confused, Williams habitually unlocked his phone and scrolled down his Twitter feed. There, he found the answer.

Three-year UNC starting quarterback and Williams’ mentor Bryn Renner had fractured his scapula in his left, non-throwing shoulder. One vicious hit in a game against N.C. State days earlier had ended Renner’s season, ended the senior’s career.

It was now Williams’ team. He was now the starter. He was now in the driver’s seat.

His new clock ferociously circled — three wins in 21 days brought the Tar Heels a bowl bid, and a fourth win brought a crystal Belk Bowl trophy back to Chapel Hill.

But the minute and second hands eventually froze — on February 20, to be exact — when coach Larry Fedora announced an open competition would take place for the starting job heading into the 2014 season.

Williams knew what he had to do — making people believe in him is nothing new.

And with his eyes on the job, he knows the sitting and waiting is over. But, not too fast.

We’re getting ahead of the story.

A blessing in disguise

He sat in his living room and waited.

All an 8-year-old Marquise wanted to do was play football. He wanted to be a quarterback. But in his hometown of Charlotte, he was too young to strap on pads and a helmet.

The odds against him, Marquise still tried to boyishly charm his way into starting early. He asked and awaited an answer.

“No,” said Bernard Whiteside, Williams’ father. “You can’t play until you’re 9 years old.”

There’s no doubt those 365 days hurt the youngster. Regardless, he watched and waited to get on the field, perhaps preparing for a similar, yet even more excruciating, experience that would ultimately come.

Fast forward to spring 2013 and Williams again found himself at home — watching and waiting.

After redshirting his freshman season at UNC and spending one as a backup, Williams lost focus. He admits he gained weight and took days off on the field. But it was the days off in the classroom that cost him.

He had to withdraw from UNC, pack his bags and head back to Charlotte days before the start of spring practices.

“It was miserable,” he said. “Boy, you look out and see the boys out there sweating blood and going to war for each other, and I’m just sitting. That killed me.”

Williams wasn’t in school, but he was still on the team — he took that to heart. A clock always nearby, he awoke to daily 5 a.m. alarms for workouts, just like the team. He watched film, just like the team. He waited until 2:15 p.m. to lift, just like the team. And most importantly, he essentially slept with a playbook under his pillow.

While some might have let the experience break them, Williams embraced it.

“Sometimes I look back and I thank God for putting me in that situation,” he said. “Because would I ever had studied the playbook like that? That’s what I ask myself.

“Everybody has adversity come through their life, and I overcame it.”

‘Lights on, ‘Quise on’

He sat in the back of the team bus and waited.

As the drum solo of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” pounded in his headphones, tears began to fall from Williams’ face.

He began to think about how, months earlier, he’d been forgotten, written off, after a semester at home. But he’d gotten past it, beating out freshman standout Mitch Trubisky for the 2013 backup job.

With Renner sidelined with a foot injury against Virginia Tech October 5, it would finally pay off. Williams waited for the bus to roll up to Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va. He was about to make his first career collegiate start. Even sweeter: It was his 21st birthday.

“I was just thinking about, man ... everybody’s going to be watching,” he said. “What I’ve been about and what I’ve progressed in and what did I put in the time I was out.

“And, I’m starting on ESPN, the collegiate level for North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech, who’s the No. 2 defense in the country. You couldn’t have asked for a better, better birthday present than that.”

UNC lost 27-17, but if there were any doubts about the backup, they were put to rest.

Williams isn’t a practice player. He knows it. His dad knows. His coaches know. And his teammates know, especially former UNC tailback A.J. Blue.

Against the Hokies, Williams showed, come game time, he’s a different breed.

“When the lights on, ‘Quise on,” Blue said. “That’s how it is.”

Because under the lights, Williams was himself. He went back to the player who’d been a starter since the age of 9. The guy who Rivals.com ranked the nation’s No. 9 dual-threat quarterback out of high school.

“I know how much that meant to him,” Renner said, “just being around him and seeing how much it really mattered to him to be the starting quarterback.”

While Renner would always tell Williams he was just one play away from his time, it wouldn’t be long before that one play came — Nov. 2, 2013 against N.C. State.

Williams won four of five games after Renner’s injury, throwing for 1,161 yards and rushing for 335. He accounted for 19 total touchdowns with just three turnovers.

Before he knew it, Williams was under the lights at Bank of America Stadium in his hometown of Charlotte, celebrating a 39-17 Belk Bowl win against Cincinnati.

“To see him come out of the locker room and run on the field ... and he looks up and points at me,” Whiteside said. “I’m like, yeah. He made it.”

But in Williams’ book, it was only just the beginning.

Yes, he’d led UNC out of the depths of disappointment following Renner’s injury to its first bowl victory since 2010.

But, he’d been competing his entire career, his entire life and that wouldn’t change. It wouldn’t be that easy.

After everything, Fedora still wasn’t set on him as the starter, as the future of the team.

But that didn’t mean Williams was done fighting. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be his team.

Shocking the world

He sat in the Kenan Stadium recruit lounge.

Nine days separated him from Saturday, UNC’s annual spring game — an opportunity for the football team to showcase its offseason work.

The main event of this year’s intrasquad scrimmage is a fight. Redshirt junior Marquise Williams vs. redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky: the battle for the starting job.

Fewer than 24 hours before Williams took his seat in the lounge, Trubisky gave the media his interpretation of the competition, suggesting he would’ve started after Renner’s injury if not for his redshirt. That he doesn’t look up to Williams. That the job is his.

The mention of those words brought about a change in Williams.

Typically known for his light-heartedness, the Marquise Williams teammates make fun of for having a female puppy and loving Miley Cyrus — the guy who’s called the competition a friendly one — disappeared.

Out clawed the grittier “new Marquise,” who has undeniable confidence and swag. A Marquise Williams who’s been in the same position as Trubisky and is not going back.

“He feels like he has to say whatever he needs to say. At the same time, you’re going to have to show me. I’m about showing,” he said. “I’m probably the most confident quarterback we got right now because I’ve played under the lights.

“I feel no pressure at all ... I just sit back, relax and I laugh at it. Because I love it. A lot of people think, ‘You should be worried.’ I’m not worried one bit. I don’t need to worry.”

His dad isn’t worried, either.

“I have 100,” Whiteside corrected himself. “I have 1,000 percent confidence Marquise will be the starter come August 30. There’s no doubt in my mind. I don’t see no one taking my son out of the position. It could be given away. But as far as taken, I don’t see it.”

Williams doesn’t want to be remembered by his emotions that have been brought out by the heat of competition.

“When you think of Marquise,” he said. “I just want people to think of him as a respectful man.”

But maybe the new Marquise will come to the spring game to play. The guy who knows his clock has started ticking again — who knows it’s his time to do one thing.

“I love when people write me off because I’ma shock the world,” he said. “I’ma continue to shock the world until I’m dead and gone.”

Because he’s done sitting.

Marquise Williams is done waiting.

sports@dailytarheel.com

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