Through seven games, UNC averaged 102.1 rushing yards per game on 2.8 yards per carry, which represented one of the worst rushing attacks in the country stat-wise. Over the final five games of the regular season, however, the Tar Heels averaged 207.8 yards per game on 5.4 yards per carry.
Part of that drastic improvement was due to a frontloaded scheduled, but the bulk of the turnaround can be attributed to Williams, the mobile quarterback that earned more playing time as the season progressed and ultimately started the final four games following Bryn Renner’s season-ending shoulder surgery.
The red-shirt sophomore rushed for 340 yards and five touchdowns during the month of November.
UNC’s offensive line, which started three underclassmen, was heavily criticized early in the season, but failed to receive much credit from media and fans when the ground game found traction. UNC head coach Larry Fedora disagreed with that assessment earlier this week.
“We’ve had our ups and downs in the protection game and a lot of situations there, but we’ve really made the most improvement running the football as the year’s gone on,” Fedora said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the way the offensive line has gelled.”
When asked if the ground game’s late-season success was primarily due to Williams’s insertion, Fedora credited the entire offense instead.
“I think it’s Marquise, I think it’s the offensive line, I think it’s the running backs have improved, I think our perimeter blocking has improved, I think all of it,” Fedora said. “I think we’ve grown as a football team. I can promise you this – if we didn’t get better up there in the offensive line, we weren’t going to be any better. It didn’t matter what Marquise did.”
Senior left tackle James Hurst and junior center Russell Bodine anchored a line tasked with replacing four key seniors from the 2012 unit, including three NFL draft picks. Red-shirt freshmen Caleb Peterson (LG) and Jon Heck (RT) started along with sophomore Landon Turner (RG).
“I think they’ve matured a lot,” Hurst said. “Individually, they understand their role and they understand what they need to do in preparation and practice to hold their own and be a part of a unit. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
Former offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who accepted the Arkansas State head coaching job on Thursday morning, took a more balanced approach earlier this week in describing the offensive line’s growth and struggles.
“We probably put a lot of blame and pressure on them all throughout the season, especially early,” Anderson said. “I’m not sure we were clicking on all cylinders at any particular position with all of the new parts. I thought they progressed gradually. I think they worked their tails off and guys got better.”
Anderson acknowledged that Williams’s mobility provided a security blanket for lapses up front as the season went along. After a 2012 season in which Anderson had confidence in Renner’s ability to sit in the pocket and spread the ball around without fear of line breakdowns, 2013 was more “hit-or-miss.”
“If you’re a pocket guy like we had with Bryn, there’s really a lot of pressure on those guys,” Anderson said. “Now, there’s a lot of things you can do with that guy, too. There’s a bunch of throws that we made with [Renner] that we wouldn’t ask ‘Quise to make right now. But the mobility of the quarterbacks and the ability to extend plays to maybe take some pressure off the O-line, it definitely does help.”
The 2014 season could be more of the same, albeit with a trio of starters back. While Hurst has exhausted his eligibility, speculation has revolved around Bodine’s potential decision to return for his senior season since the summer months.
“I still think we’ve got a tremendous amount of work left to do in the offseason,” Anderson said. “There’s going to be a tremendous amount of youth again. We may be the youngest O-line in the country again next year. Obviously Hurst comes out and however the rest of the transition goes, so it’s not over. But if they’ll continue to work like they are, then I feel comfortable we’re going to be okay.”
Regardless of Bodine’s ultimate decision, Hurst highlighted freshman center Lucas Crowley’s play late in the season as crucial in smoothing the transition to more playing time in 2014.
First up, however, is the Belk Bowl opponent Cincinnati on Dec. 28. The Bearcats will provide one of the toughest tests to date for UNC’s offensive line with a top-five rushing defense allowing just 98.7 yards per game.