CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Earlier this week, in the moments before a UNC equipment manager sounded his horn to signify the start of practice, senior quarterback Marquise Williams grabbed a football for a quick game of catch with senior wide receiver Quinshad Davis on the sideline.
Once the horn sounded, Williams joined Davis in donning a red pinny before making his way over to the turf practice field where red-shirt sophomore Mitch Trubisky was taking the first-team reps with the quarterback position group.
After spending spring practice and training camp last year battling it out for UNC’s starting quarterback job, Williams and Trubisky haven taken different roads to personal growth this spring.
For Williams, it’s been a spring of mental testing. The Charlotte, N.C. native had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip in February. He’s expected to be cleared to return to football activities in early June.
In the meantime, Williams can be found near quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf’s side during practice with a clipboard in hand.
Williams typically gets 40-50 reps with the ones during team periods (7-of-7, blitz, red zone, etc.) of a typical practice, according to Heckendorf, but the number of mental reps has more than doubled this spring.
“Every day he comes out here with a sheet and I ask him to get a pre-snap read of the defense and then get a post-snap decision of where he would go with the ball,” Heckendorf said. “So he’s thinking from Play 1 to Play 100 of practice when normally in practice you run your six plays and then you come out and relax.”
With spring ball coming to a close on Saturday in Williams’s hometown, the approach has seemingly worked. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has spent more time in the film room this offseason and said he now has a better understanding of fronts and coverages.
“It’s a mental game,” Williams said. “If I can’t do it physically, I have to get better somehow, and the mental game is getting there. I feel comfortable.”
An improved ability to pick up on defensive cues has slowed the game down for UNC’s fifth-year quarterback.
“I know everything, but there’s still more to learn,” Williams said. “There’s always more to learn. I feel like I know way more than I did last year as far as defenses and when guys are rotating. If I see a stacked safety with a linebacker, I know a blitz is coming. I know it all now. I feel good. I’m just ready to get back out there and have some fun with the guys.”
UNC head coach Larry Fedora confirmed on Tuesday that Williams remains UNC’s starting quarterback, adding that while a player cannot lose his job due to injury, he can be beaten out.
As tempting a goal as that possibility may be, Trubisky’s position on the depth chart hasn’t been his focus this spring. Instead, the Mentor, Ohio product has put an emphasis on a laundry list of areas within his game to elevate his level of play.
Trubisky has worked with the strength and conditioning staff to improve his foot speed so that he can become a more viable option in the run game. He’s also tightened up his throwing mechanics to provide for a quicker release and to prevent over-striding when throwing the ball.
In addition to heavy doses of film study, Trubisky’s greatest focus has been on establishing a better pocket presence, which Fedora has praised this spring.
“He has a great grasp of the offense,” Fedora said. “He doesn’t get flustered. He knows it; he’s comfortable with it. Now he’s a veteran. He’s gotten reps. He’s had live reps in game. He’s feeling very comfortable and the game’s slowed down for him.”
With a pair of talented but untested quarterbacks in Caleb Henderson and Anthony Ratliff-Williams backing Trubisky up this spring, Heckendorf’s plan was to tab the 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore as the lead dog and push him to his limits in an attempt to push the younger players.
“He’s responded phenomenally,” Heckendorf said. “He’s had a really good spring. He’s seeing things faster, he’s anticipating things, he’s playing with more confidence, so it’s been fun to see his growth and his development.”
Fedora, Heckendorf and Trubisky all pointed to live game reps last fall – including his game-winning touchdown pass at Virginia - as the springboard for his growth this spring.
“It’s been great for me,” Trubisky said. “I’ve approached it like any other thing, but with more of a sense of urgency to come out here every day and not take it for granted. Just come out here and improve my craft every day and prove to the offense and the coaches that I can lead and do a great job, and I feel like I’ve done that this spring.”
Fedora demands a “next man up” mentality, and that approach has created opportunities for not only Trubisky, but also for Henderson and Ratliff-Williams to gain an increased number of reps due to Williams’s absence.
That silver lining hasn’t made it any easier, however, for UNC’s All-ACC quarterback.
“It’s fun to watch them, but it also sucks just to be watching them,” Williams said.
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