Now Healthy, Williams Polishing His Craft

UNC's signal caller is banking on improved health and decision-making to fuel his senior campaign.

PINEHURST, N.C. – In listening to Marquise Williams at the ACC Kickoff media event on Monday, the limitations – some injury-related, some self-inflicted - on his play in 2014 could prompt thoughts of a mediocre quarterback for the uninformed observer.

Williams, of course, earned second-team All-ACC honors last fall after completing 270-of-428 passes for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns, while also running for a team-high 788 yards and 13 scores. His critical insights, which cracked through his politically correct veneer during his hour-long media session, provided details into his up-and-down play in 2014 while ratcheting up expectations for his final season in a UNC uniform.

First and foremost, Williams is finally healthy. The Charlotte, N.C. native had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip in February and was cleared to return to football activities in last month.

“I haven’t felt this good since my sophomore year in high school,” Williams said.

Williams initially hurt his hip in UNC’s win at Pittsburgh in November 2013. The lingering effects of the injury led to some improper technique, beginning with his footwork.

“There were times when I really couldn’t step into the throw,” Williams said. “My left hip wouldn’t allow me to. I couldn’t get any velocity on the football.”

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound quarterback served as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy earlier this month for the second straight year. During one particular session, Peyton Manning pulled Williams aside and asked if he was healthy. When Williams responded in the affirmative, Manning told him it was obvious because his footwork was much improved over the previous summer.

The following morning, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton spoke to the group about how accuracy is built upon a foundation of solid footwork. At that point of the speech, Williams looked over and locked eyes with Manning.

“When my feet were bad, I was inconsistent with throws,” Williams said. “… If you don’t have good feet, you don’t have good accuracy.”

Williams completed 63.1 percent of his passes in 2014, although that number can be a bit deceiving given Larry Fedora’s offensive philosophy based on the “short passes, long gains” concept.

One silver lining of the offseason surgery that forced Williams to miss spring practice was a renewed dedication to film study. And instead of focusing solely on his reps in practice, he was tasked with obtaining presnap reads of the defense on every play, totaling in excess of 100 plays per session.

Those extra mental reps helped Williams not only understand his own offense and opposing defenses better, but also drove home Fedora’s philosophical approach.

“If there’s a stacked safety with a linebacker, then I know there’s got to be rotation and there’s some type of blitz coming,” Williams said. “Last year I didn’t know that. Clemson ran a majority of that against us last year. If I knew then what I know this year, it would have been a different outcome.”

Williams said he finally feels comfortable enough to call his own plays, although there’s no indication Fedora is willing to grant such a request. Audibles are nonexistent by design in his offensive system.

The third leg of his offseason development comes in the anticipated form of improved decision-making, an aspect of his game that compounded his injury situation. His summer emphasis has centered on being more aware of his outlet options and checking down.

Williams said he had to stop “trying to be a hero” and instead utilize his playmakers more. He referenced one 3rd-and-1 play last fall in which he put his body at risk and pummeled ahead for a tough first down pickup. Upon film review, Williams saw that wide receiver Ryan Switzer was open for a big gain on the perimeter.

“That’s taking pressure off me,” Williams said. “Just dumping the ball down, knowing where your outlets are and just getting rid of the football.”

Understanding defenses better and recognizing more specifics during presnap reads should also help the Tar Heels deliver more explosive plays. During the loss at Clemson last September, the Tigers kept matching up a linebacker with Switzer out of the slot, but Williams didn’t pick up on that detail until film study the day after.

In addition to self-preservation, improved decision-making will help smooth out the offensive inconsistencies by reducing the number of sacks allowed (28 in ’14, T-70th). Williams smiled and nodded when asked about Fedora’s stated belief that sacks in his offense fall on the quarterback.

“There were times when I could have thrown the ball out of bounds,” Williams said. “On 2nd-and-10, throw the ball out of bounds instead of taking a sack. Or there were times when I was dropping towards the tackle instead of dropping to six o’clock. So I could have just dropped to six o’clock and stepped up in the pocket, but instead I’m dropping to seven o’clock and running into the tackle.”

Such details bypass the casual fan’s periphery, but can ultimately bridge the divide between a good season and a great season, both for player and team.

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