As UNC gears up for a new football season with a different quarterback calling out plays, it’s time to remember and appreciate the enigmatic Marquise Williams. Never the most popular or celebrated player in Chapel Hill despite his eye-popping stats or impressive feats of athleticism, Williams led the Tar Heels for roughly two and a half seasons, including last year’s stunning 11-3 record.
When veteran QB Bryn Renner went down with a season-ending injury halfway through 2013, Coach Fedora and the offense turned to Williams to step up. From that moment, that’s exactly what he did. Williams and the Tar Heels finished that season going 4-1, capped off with a solid bowl win over Cincinnati to make sure the school finished 7-6.
Looking back at the past two seasons, for better and for worse, the time will be known as the Marquise Williams era. Highlighted by explosive plays that no quarterback should be able to do—remember some of his touchdown runs and catches?—but often burdened by frustrating turnovers and decision-making, Williams helped usher in Fedora’s offense and bring the program to some of its greatest heights.
Williams had his fair share of growing pains in 2014. North Carolina struggled mightily that season, with Williams’ interceptions and fumbles combining with a horrendous defense to ultimately finish a disheartening 6-7. A lot of the blame for that lackluster season has been put on Williams. Some of it is reasonable, as he truly did struggle with his accuracy and judgment at times. He’d run when he should’ve passed and vice versa. He’d make the wrong read and throw the ball to the defense. He wouldn’t protect the ball like he should when defenders sacked him.
However, simply condemning Williams doesn’t tell the whole story. The defense was awful, giving up 70 points to ECU, 50 to Clemson, and three more scores over 40. Many times, Williams had to out-gun the opposing quarterback. Against Clemson, he threw for four touchdowns and 345 yards. Then-freshman Deshaun Watson? Six touchdowns and 435 yards. Too often, the defense didn’t put Williams in comfortable situations, and he and the offense would have to do everything in their power to keep up.
There were still many highlights for Williams that season, too. In particular, the Notre Dame game in South Bend was something to behold. The Fighting Irish were #6 in the country at the time. They eventually won the game 50-43 despite everything Williams did on the field. He threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 132 yards and a touchdown. He even caught one 23-yard pass for a touchdown. No game more than that one perfectly encapsulates Williams as a football player: an explosive, game-breaking athlete who can hurt you in any number of ways.
This past season was where it all finally came together for Williams and the offense. He had his best year as a player, lighting up the stat sheet with 3,072 passing yards, 948 rushing yards and 38 total touchdowns (again, another single catch for a TD). Williams connected with receivers Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer on beautiful long balls. He and running back Elijah Hood complemented each other to create a devastating rushing attack. He juked and scrambled into beautiful TD passes or agile first-down runs. He truly did it all.
Yes, there were some struggles, and those ugly turnovers popped up at the worst times again. But, before that, look at some of the performances he had: 148 rushing yards and two rushing TD’s at Georgia Tech, 101 rushing yards and three TD’s on the ground against Miami, and 494 passing yards and five total TD’s against Duke. Those numbers nearly blow you away. North Carolina had a season on the offensive end that will always shine in Chapel Hill’s history. Williams was right at the head of that.
Of course, many people now focus on the losses that bookended the season. UNC lost the opening game of the year in Charlotte to South Carolina 17-13. It was a game the Heels really had in their grasp, and the defense at last stepped up to keep Carolina in it. Yet, Williams threw three back-breaking interceptions, all in scoring position. The anger and fury rained down on Williams, people imploring Fedora to start Mitch Trubisky. The picks were brutal and certainly cost the school an important opening-day win, but Fedora and the coaching staff should’ve taken a lot of the blame as well. Why didn’t Hood get the ball a few more times in the red-zone? Why was he even off the field during some crucial moments? Williams deserved some criticism for his play. Still, Fedora didn’t help him out much.
North Carolina, even with all of its success and improvement, lost the final two games to Clemson and Baylor. Again, Williams couldn’t bring the team to wins in those games, but to single him out is doing him a disservice. His accuracy problems creeped up against Clemson (just 11 for 33), and the school lost 45-37. The Heels had their chances and Williams kept them close, yet people are wont to forget they barely lost to a school that would later barely lose to Alabama in the National Championship game. Not so bad.
The bowl game against Baylor is something most Tar Heels would like to forget, a demoralizing finish to such a promising, exciting year. This time around, Williams absolutely lit up the Bears, going for 361 total yards and five total touchdowns. Sadly, the defense of 2014 was reanimated, and Williams found himself again in the position of gunning from behind. He played a stellar final game, but Baylor ran all over the UNC defense. Despite everything he could do, Williams’ college career ended against a team fielding a receiver at quarterback.
Williams has always been the easy lightning rod for criticism, for when things went wrong or when the team should’ve won. Now, with some time and distance, maybe UNC fans will begin to appreciate Williams for who he was and what he did, not the mistakes he made. He was a pleasure to watch every Saturday, an unbelievable highlight waiting to happen with every snap. He might throw a stupid interception or fumble the ball, but he made it thrilling to watch UNC play football again.
As Williams learns from the bench in Green Bay, Trubisky takes over next month and Fedora further entrenches himself with the program, remember those moments of pure excitement and joy that Williams brought us. He was the necessary quarterback who helped Fedora slowly transition the program into offensive dominance. Those turnovers and mistakes will fade over time. His records and his touchdowns? Those will remain for a while.