CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Music blared through speakers above North Carolina’s practice fields as players moved through conditioning drills on a brisk, gray afternoon last month, and Marquise Williams couldn’t ignore the beat.
He sprinted through a drill, bounded back to the group and began to dance. One by one, teammates followed suit, until a huddle of Tar Heels was bouncing and singing, with Williams slapping each on the back as encouragement. When a horn sounded to end the period, Williams quickly broke character and darted to the next drill, his teammates still following in unison.
“When they see me excited, they see me ready to go for practice, they’re going to be excited and ready to go,” Williams said. “I have to try to bring that energy every day.”
Just a year ago, practice was a slog for Williams, but he’s a different man now, and this is a different team. It’s his team, he said, even if his coach hasn’t made that distinction official.
In the midst of a quarterback competition Larry Fedora still insists is too close to call, Williams is enjoying every moment of the battle. He’s not simply interested in winning the job, he said. He wants to own the team, and that starts with the attitude.
“I’m going to lead the guys, and they’re going to rally behind me,” Williams said. “I’ve been waiting around here for a long time for my chance, and I’m not going to let it pass.”
Williams entered 2013 — his sophomore season — as the clear No. 2 on the depth chart, with occasional work as a running threat to whet his appetite. But when veteran Bryn Renner went down with a shoulder injury midway through the season, Williams stepped in as the starter, winning four of UNC’s final five games, including a 39-17 blowout over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
The late-season heroics still weren’t enough to earn Williams a full-time job. There was no heart-to-heart meeting with Fedora when the season ended, but Williams said it was understood that he’d enter the spring with a mandate to get better.
Nipping at his heels is Mitch Trubisky, a highly touted redshirt freshman with exceptional mobility and a bit more zip on his throws. Through the first month of spring, Fedora has fed each quarterback a roughly equal share of first-team reps, and the UNC coach said he’s in no hurry to name a starter.
“At every position, you have to earn your position,” Fedora said. “Marquise stepped in because Bryn went down. When he was put in that position, he did a phenomenal job, led us to a bowl game and won. He did a tremendous job. Now I want him to go to another level.”
For Williams, that’s meant refining his game. His legs have always made him a valuable weapon, but his arm is a work in progress. Much of Williams’ mechanics are self-taught, and he knew the details needed work.
During his spring break, Williams traveled to San Diego to work with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. It took just a few quick lessons to convince Whitfield he had a star in the making, but it would take some work before Williams could embrace his potential. Whitfield worked with Williams on shortening his strides, minimizing his motion with his nonthrowing arm, working efficiently in the pocket.
“As I was watching him, I kept telling him that you’re much, much stronger than the ball says,” Whitfield said. “We just kind of set about trying to bring some of those adjustments into play.”
But more than just mechanics, Whitfield challenged Williams to practice with more confidence, comparing it to Justin Timberlake taking the stage for a concert -- never timid, embracing the moment.
Williams had that same power to galvanize an audience, Whitfield said, but he had a tendency to hide in the shadows.
“Whether you call it confidence or swagger or energy, it’s there,” Whitfield said. “But I didn’t want him to try to feel it out. I wanted him to kick that door on open and come through.”
So that’s what Williams has been doing this spring. Whitfield sends him the occasional text message as a reminder, but Williams doesn’t need it. He’s dancing, he’s encouraging, he’s leading. He’s taking the stage like he owns it, even if Trubisky is waiting in the wings to stake his claim.
“I love the word competition because that’s been part of my whole life,” Williams said. “To be that leader, I have to perform. When you say competition, I like that. I laugh at it. That’s my name: Marquise Competition. I’m ready to go get it.”
Fedora said he’s been impressed by Williams’ approach this spring, and it’s clear his teammates respect him. Williams’ game experience gives him a leg up in the battle, and if there’s one thing separating the two quarterbacks right now, it’s the confidence and comfort exhibited by the incumbent.
But the job is still open, and Williams is still charging onto the stage believing he’ll finally win over his coach. If he doesn’t, he said, it would be devastating, but there wouldn’t be regrets. That’s what this spring is all about.
“I’ll determine if he’s going to beat me out because it’s me that’s out there,” Williams said. “It’s not Coach Fedora or Coach [Gunter] Brewer. If he deserved the spot, he’s got the spot. Me, I’m going to keep working and keep going to get it because I feel like this is my team. I’m in the driver’s seat with those guys behind me.”