Williams back home as UNC faces Cincinnati in Belk Bowl

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 12:25 AM

The last time Marquise Williams was at Bank of America Stadium, he threw a 68-yard pass to Mallard Creek High teammate Kevin Asante during a longest-throw contest at halftime of a Carolina Panthers preseason game.

Williams assumed it would be the only pass he would ever throw there. That assumption seemed safe when he spent his first two years as a backup at North Carolina and wasn’t even enrolled in the school this past spring.

But four years after throwing the pass to Asante – which Williams said would have gone longer if he had a chance to warm up beforehand – the Tar Heels sophomore is back in his hometown leading UNC into the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati (3:20 p.m., ESPN).

“I thought I’d never get to step another foot on that field,” said Williams, who played prep football 15 miles away. “But I’m glad I get to finally go back and perform in front of a lot of family and friends – friends that haven’t seen my play since high school.

“I’m excited, man. I’m pumped.”

Though he only became the full-time starter four games ago, Williams set a Tar Heel record with 1,058 yards of total offense over a three-game span and he’s poised to become the first quarterback since Gayle Bomar to lead the team in rushing.

With Williams starting, UNC beat Pittsburgh on the road to all but clinch a bowl appearance and scored a school-record 80 points against Old Dominion.

“I came a long way,” Williams said. “I’ve been sitting for about three years, just waiting for my chance. A lot of guys get impatient, want to leave, but I’m that patient guy that always does whatever I can to make the team win. It’s a blessing to be able to now start for this university – a dream come true.”

Williams was a Parade All-American and a top dual-threat quarterback recruit coming out of Mallard Creek, but he spent his freshman year at UNC as the backup to Bryn Renner. Then, even the backup role was in doubt after Williams missed all of spring camp because of an academic suspension, opening the door for early enrollee Mitch Trubisky.

“Normally when that happens to guys they don’t come back,” cornerback Jabari Price said. “We all thought Mitch would be the next guy up instead of him redshirting, but the suspension didn’t bother (Marquise). He’s shocked a lot of us. All he needed was confidence.”

Williams said he never considered leaving. Instead, he put a renewed emphasis on studying the playbook and focusing during practices.

“I just wasn’t ever big on practice,” Williams said. “Coming out of high school I took practice as a joke but when the lights hit, I was ready to go. (After the suspension) I knew that football can be taken away any time so I had to focus on doing what I needed to do.”

Williams regained the backup role over the summer, but still saw limited action through the season’s first four games, with three carries and one pass attempt. Then Renner was unable to play against Virginia Tech because of an ankle injury, allowing Williams to make his first collegiate start on his 21st birthday. 

The Tar Heels fell 27-17, but Williams proved to his coaches – and himself – that he could perform against a tough defense in a hostile environment.

“Kenan is loud but nothing’s like Lane,” Williams said. “Lane rocks. I felt like once I got that under my belt, I could go anywhere. I could go to Death Valley LSU, down to the Swamp in Florida, the 12th man in (Texas A&M). And that built my confidence, because anytime I go into a game, I think back to the Virginia Tech game. This is not Lane Stadium, so let’s play ball.”

By the time Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Williams had been integrated into the offense and was ready for full-time action. The Tar Heels (6-6) went 3-1 down the stretch under Williams to complete a midseason turnaround and qualify for a bowl after a 1-5 start.

“I think Marquise has come in and not only controlled the damage but shown an entirely new element to this offense,” said former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell, who is calling the Belk Bowl on ESPN.

Now Williams will face Cincinnati (9-3) with a home crowd behind him. As soon as the bowl destination became official, Williams posted a message on Facebook telling his friends to be at Bank of America Stadium. Twenty minutes later, he already had 200 requests for tickets – some from the same people who had told him earlier that he should leave UNC.

“You told me not to be patient back then, but look where I am now,” Williams said. “You’re going to hit adversity in life, it’s how you’re going to respond to that adversity. A lot of guys, I tell them, ‘Did you see how I responded? I mean, I came back stronger than I was before.’”