Williams made brief appearances in three of UNC’s first four games of 2012, completing his lone pass for a 15-yard touchdown and running three times for 12 yards. At that point of his sophomore season, the Charlotte, N.C. product had career numbers highlighting his backup role – 11-of-18 passing for 142 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 32 rushes for 205 yards.
Word around the program during the offseason suggested that true freshman quarterback Mitch Trubisky was Bryn Renner’s heir apparent after a solid spring in which Williams wasn’t enrolled in school due to an academic suspension.
While Williams was unable to practice with his teammates during spring ball, he was a fixture on the sidelines. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder re-enrolled for summer school and his football trajectory has taken a drastically different path.
Williams notched his first career start at Virginia Tech after Renner was sidelined with a foot injury late in UNC’s loss to East Carolina. The Mallard Creek H.S. graduated capitalized on the opportunity by completing 23 of his 35 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also led the team with 56 rushing yards on 18 carries, good for a 3.1 yards-per-carry average.
Those statistics, however, didn’t necessarily surprise the coaching staff. His poise did, though. After a challenging red-shirt freshman season in 2012, Williams knew he had to build the coaching staff’s trust in order to earn more playing time.
“That’s one thing they’ve started doing – believing in me,” Williams said. “I just worked hard at what I needed to improve at – that’s passing the football and accuracy and stuff like that – to make them believe. That’s the main key I’ve been working on.”
While Williams had previously taken the field with sub-packages designed for his skillset, his performance early against Virginia Tech allowed offensive coordinator Blake Anderson to open up the playbook. And it’s stayed that way, as Williams has become a critical piece of UNC’s offensive scheme since the trip to Blacksburg.
“We obviously have some sub-packages that we’ve utilized him for,” Anderson said on Tuesday. “But when he takes a series, when he goes, we run the system as is. There are some things that I think he’s more comfortable with that maybe would be a little different than Bryn, but for the most part, when he’s on the field, we’re running what we plan to do and what’s in the package is basically the same offense that we would run with any quarterback.”
In the two games since Renner’s return to the starting lineup, Williams has completed 8-of-15 passes for 153 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, while also rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
“His feet get him out of some trouble at times, but he’s making fairly good decisions with the ball in the throwing game,” Anderson said. “He did a good job spreading the ball around the other night when he had opportunities to throw it. He stood in the pocket and took a couple of shots and waited for plays to develop, so yeah, we’re wide open with him when he’s out there.”
Williams’s play of late has prompted questions from fans and media regarding his absence earlier in the season. If Renner had never injured his foot against East Carolina, would Williams still be coming in for roughly a series a game with little fanfare?
When asked if Williams was the type of player that performed better in games than in practice, Anderson replied: “A little bit.”
“I think he’ll tell you, especially last year, that his immaturity showed,” he continued. “He didn’t practice very well. He’s practicing better now than he did a year ago. And he had a good fall camp, to be honest with you.”
Anderson noted the difficulty involved for a backup quarterback to mentally prepare for practice when playing behind a fifth-year senior. Part of that equation is maturity, while part of it is also understanding that one turned ankle is all it takes to have the entire offense dropped in your lap.
“I think the Virginia Tech situation helped him realize just how close he was to being on the field,” Anderson said. “He’s done a really good job the last few weeks of mentally preparing and having better practice preparation to be ready. He doesn’t want to let these guys down.”
Anderson acknowledged that Williams’s maturity has “definitely been a process,” but stressed that he’s doing a much better job now.
As for Williams, he points to sitting out in the spring as the reason for his emergence.
“It’s the whole reason why I’m playing so good,” Williams said. “I’ve taken the game more seriously; I’ve studied the playbook more. I focus on what I need to do to help the team come back and win and not to be the little childish kid I was a year ago. I had to be more mature.”
That personal growth has resulted in offensive growth for the Tar Heels. UNC has churned out 57 points and 892 yards of offense in its last two outings.