The best is yet to come? After sparking North Carolina, Marquise Williams is ready for his greatest highlight
Marquise Williams has lots of football memories from his five years in Chapel Hill, N.C., some good and some bad, some high and some low. Curiously, his most vivid one, and his favorite highlight, doesn't involve him. In 2012 Williams was a backup quarterback stuck on the sideline. Still, he enjoyed Giovani Bernard's punt return as much as anyone in Kenan Memorial Stadium.
It was Oct. 27 and North Carolina was tied 35–35 with rival NC State. Bernard, a former Tar Heels running back who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, fielded a punt with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Seventy-three yards and 11 seconds later he was in the end zone, with Williams following closely behind. "I was on the sideline, but as soon as he crossed the 50, I crossed the 50," Williams recalls. "He got in the end zone and I started running toward the end zone. Man, I loved it."
Williams has an uncommon ability to remember small details from big moments in games that happened years ago. He relives the critical play from his third grade Pop Warner championship in Shelby, N.C., with ease. "In the fourth quarter, I sprain my knee and come to the sideline. We get the ball back on our own two-yard line, with nine seconds to go and coach asks me, 'Quise, can you run it all the way back?' That was the only play we had left! And I did it. Ninety-eight yards, all the way down the sideline. Broke a record in Pop Warner and everything."
Now a redshirt senior for North Carolina, the 6' 2", 225-pound dual-threat quarterback has set more than 20 records for the Tar Heels, including the most career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (32) and the most career rushing yards by a quarterback (2,296 and counting). Williams's play this fall—2,605 passing yards, 786 rushing yards, 29 total touchdowns—has been the catalyst for North Carolina's 11–1 season and rise to No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. But Williams is still searching for a signature highlight to cap his collegiate career, and he's hopeful it will come on Saturday. All he has to do is lead underdog Carolina past undefeated Clemson and Heisman Trophy contender Deshaun Watson, considered one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country, in the ACC title game.
Williams knows most fans probably doubt the Tar Heels. He likes it that way.
"We have to keep proving ourselves, we know that," Williams says. "You can just tell, with the way ESPN is set up, the way everything goes, people don't want to talk about our football team, people don't want us to be good. They think we're gonna go to Charlotte this weekend and lay an egg, the way they're talking. But we know if we handle our business, you're gonna have to pay attention to us."
Williams also knows UNC football has historically been written off, and is aware of the school's reputation primarily as a basketball powerhouse. He went to Chapel Hill to change that perception. "He wants to leave a legacy," says his dad, Bernard, the man Marquise describes as "my best friend, my soulmate, the guy who pushed me to be successful."
First, though, Marquise had to overcome a few roadblocks.
Williams came into the 2015 season as the undisputed starter, but no one expected much from the Tar Heels. Despite returning 17 starters, the media picked them to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division, a standing befitting a squad that went an underwhelming 6–7 in '14. When UNC opened its campaign with a 17–13 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 3, few blinked. Three weeks later, it barely led Delaware 13–7 at halftime. Williams was benched in favor of sophomore backup Mitch Trubisky, who threw four second-half touchdowns en route to a 41–14 win.
Williams was reinstated as the starter heading into the following week's game at Georgia Tech, and two months and almost 2,500 total yards later, he says his problems stemmed from "thinking too much." About the rain, about his assignments and about a great-grandmother who had died a week before the Delaware game. "In the game it was like, 'Where did my mind go?' We go silent cadence and I'm doing my own cadence out loud. I was trying to do too much, thinking too much, worried about getting my draft stock up instead of just having fun."
Quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf saw the same thing.
"I think he felt like he had prove to NFL guys, 'Hey, I'm a passer, too,'" Heckendorf says. "And by doing that he forced himself into some situations where, usually, he wouldn't throw. Once he realized that what makes him so special is his ability to attack defenses with his arms and his feet, things have been clicking."
Heckendorf has been around Williams from the beginning of his UNC career, "back when he didn't know right from left or up from down." He and fourth-year head coach Larry Fedora never lost faith in Williams, but Williams says Fedora pulling him into his office following the Delaware game and telling him, "you're still my quarterback," injected him with an extra dose of confidence.
Later that week, Bernard Williams told his only son that no matter what happened for the rest of the season, he would be proud of his accomplishments at UNC. Then, in the gentle nudging tone parents are known for, Bernard gave Marquise something else to chew on: The Georgia Tech game on Oct. 3 was an opportunity.
Bernard has always pushed his son to believe he could achieve more, sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly. In middle school, Bernard told Marquise his grades had to be good, not just good enough, and demanded they be accompanied by good behavior. When Marquise objected, Bernard told him to straighten up or risk handing over his jersey. In Marquise's ninth grade year, they moved from Shelby to Charlotte, 45 minutes east, and Bernard told his son that he would enroll at newly opened Mallard Creek High. Marquise had no interest in joining a start-up football team and threw a fit. Bernard put him in the car and drove to Mallard Creek for his first practice—which Marquise completed while wearing an opposing school's gear. Bernard told Marquise a new school would build character, and that he'd later be grateful for being tested.
Mallard Creek won its first game 44–20 "and then we just got hammered the rest of the year," Marquise groans. He vowed it wouldn't happen again. Over Williams's last three seasons, the Mavericks played deep into the playoffs. As a senior he 2010, he finished with 3,034 passing yards and 45 touchdowns (to only eight interceptions) and 1,147 rushing yards with 19 scores. He was named a Parade All-American and was ranked as the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback in the recruiting class of '11, according to Rivals.com.
So, when Bernard told Marquise this year that the Georgia Tech game represented a chance to make a statement—both for him as a quarterback and for the Tar Heels as a program—Marquise had a history of his dad being right to draw on.
Days later, Marquise led UNC to the biggest comeback in school history, storming back from a 21–0 first-half deficit to beat the Yellow Jackets 38–31. He filled up the stat sheet, rushing for 148 yards, passing for 134 and recording three total touchdowns (including a 37-yard receiving score on a reverse pass in the fourth quarter). Since then the Tar Heels have rolled, piling up victories over Pittsburgh (26-19), Duke (66–31) and Virginia Tech (30–27 in overtime), the latter in coach Frank Beamer's final game in Blacksburg, Va. They win partially because of a defense that has improved under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik and partially because of a ground attack that averages 229.7 rushing yards per game, second in the ACC. Still, the team goes as Williams does. If he is on the field laughing, dancing and generally having a good time, that typically means good things for the program.
"Versus Georgia Tech, I remember having a moment like, 'Man I'm on point today,'" Williams recalls. "I'm always gonna try to play with swagger and a smile. When [opposing] guys see you laughing, it usually makes them a little mad."
Williams likes it that way, too.
To jump into the top four and earn a spot in this season's College Football Playoff, UNC will likely need to beat Clemson handily on Saturday. Some question if the Tar Heels deserve a shot to compete for a national championship because they played two FCS schools (Delaware and North Carolina A&T) and lost to what turned out to be a bad South Carolina team. Their strength of schedule is No. 63, according to the Sagarin ratings. Stanford (10–2), by comparison, has the 16th-ranked slate.
Williams isn't worried about any of that, though. He relishes the underdog role and tries to focus on the things he can control. And always, he thinks back to the past.
"When I was a kid, man, the video game I loved the most was NCAA Football," he says. "And with the player I created—yes, I would play for the North Carolina Tar Heels—we'd go to the [national] championship and win. This is what I dreamed of."
Over the next few weeks, he'll try to recreate that memory—but in real life, with a highlight to top all others.