While four UNC athletic trainers huddled around Renner on Saturday, Williams stood on the sidelines, rallying his teammates and hugging offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic, before taking a football to throw several passes to warm up.
It was a symbolic moment foreshadowing UNC’s future, albeit prematurely. The fifth-year record-setting senior returned for two more snaps, although one technically never happened due to a holding penalty. The final play of Renner’s career at UNC was a nine-yard completion over the middle to T.J. Thorpe on 3rd-and-4, despite suffering from a detached labrum and fracture that would require surgery four days later.
Williams’s time has finally arrived. The red-shirt sophomore has completed 40 of his 66 passes for 537 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions this season to go along with 221 rushing yards.
“He’s matured a lot,” UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said on Tuesday. “I think the time away last spring and almost being away from football – not knowing for sure it was going to be there for him – I think helped him mature. And I think Bryn has had a tremendous effect on him in watching how you handle a team and how you handle being the leader.”
Anderson told reporters that Williams had a “great practice” in his first opportunity as the full-time starter on Tuesday, although both coach and player pointed toward the Virginia Tech game week as playing a significant role in smoothing the transition.
“That was a big help for me,” Williams said. “I’m glad I got one under my belt so I can go into the game more poised and play like Bryn did. He’s always a poised guy and that lead guy always wanting us to score. I’m going to take what he did and what I’ve got and we’re going to try to get this win on Saturday.”
The Tar Heels (3-5, 2-3 ACC) host Virginia this weekend, the first of a four-game slate to close the regular season. UNC has to win three of those four to become bowl eligible, although Renner’s injury dealt those postseason hopes a serious blow.
Game week practices are so limited that UNC only gives reps to its top two quarterbacks on the roster. True freshman Mitch Trubisky, thought by some close to the program to be Renner’s heir apparent during the offseason, would have likely been elevated to the backup role had the depth chart shakeup happened in September.
With daylight savings time in the past, however, Anderson didn’t get much sleep on Monday while debating how to approach Trubisky’s role moving forward this fall.
“I wanted to do what’s best for Mitch and I wanted to do what’s best for the team,” Anderson said. “Talked to his parents, talked to his coaches, talked to him. He was in the middle of the competition in fall camp and could have very easily been the No. 2 at any point.
“But we would like to red-shirt him if we possibly can. So to step forward, we’re going to keep him involved, but try to red-shirt him if at all possible because we feel like he’s got a great future ahead of him.”
Given that decision, red-shirt freshman Kanler Coker assumed the backup role on Tuesday and took all of the No. 2 reps, according to Anderson. The coaching staff gets work in with the younger players on Sundays and Thursdays while the travel squad is doing other things, but Coker’s reps have been significantly limited.
Anderson described the Flowery Branch, Ga. product as raw at times in technical aspects of his game, but making up for it with his athletic ability and a great football IQ. More importantly, Anderson said Coker doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
If the unthinkable happens and UNC has to dig deep into its depth chart assuming injuries to Williams and Coker, Anderson has that mapped out surprisingly well, too.
“The earlier it would happen, obviously, the more likely Mitch Trubisky goes and he plays,” he said. “The later it happens, then [it’s] Caleb Pressley. We’ve got four guys on the roster and we’ll have an emergency plan with A.J. [Blue] or somebody.”
Those scenarios, of course, are far-fetched and unlikely to happen. As it stands, UNC remains in solid shape at quarterback with Williams directing the offense. The safety net, however, is no longer in place.