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North Carolina QB Williams reaches higher level

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Marquise Williams will be the most exciting player on the field when North Carolina takes on Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 at Ford Field.

And Williams is thrilled he will be North Carolina's starting quarterback, something he thought might ever happen after he left school and missed spring practice last year due to an academic suspension.

Well, Williams admittedly grew up and showed what he could do after replacing injured starter Bryn Renner midway through the 2013 season, leading the Tar Heels to four wins in five games, then to a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.

Williams' confidence has soared to another level this season, a reason he earned All-ACC second-team honors while throwing for 2,870 yards and 20 TDs with nine interceptions and running for a team-high 737 yards and 12 TDs. Sure, the Tar Heels are 6-6, but the offense has done its part, averaging 34 points a game with a passing attack that ranks 24th nationally (279.3 yards per game).

Williams, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior, gives credit to Lions rookie tight end and his former Tar Heels teammate Eric Ebron for his successful comeback.

"When everything went wrong, I felt it was the end of the world," Williams said of the period when he left school. "Eric was a guy who told me I needed to get it together if I wanted to reach my dream, so I cleaned up my act and worked hard to get back.

"I appreciate life more. I'm doing something I love to do and that's living my dream as a starting quarterback."

It was also Ebron who told Williams he was going to be the man in the spotlight as the team's starter after Renner's injury a year ago, coming up to him and asking, "You ready?" then adding, "It's your time."

And Williams as a dual-threat quarterback showed he was the perfect fit for Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora's fast-paced, no-huddle, spread offense.

"We're good when we play at a fast tempo," Williams said. "I love it. It also gets our opponent's defense tired out. We know Rutgers is going to be competitive. They have big guys defensively. They play very physical. We're going to have to be smart, play fast, run our tempo and execute on first down."

Williams has set multiple school-records, including a single-season record for total offense (3,607), most TDs responsible (32) and most TDs rushing by a quarterback (12). He also set school records for most completions in a game (38) and in a half (23) during a 48-43 comeback win over No. 10 Georgia Tech. He threw for 390 yards and four TDs and directed a 12-play, 75-yard drive which led to the winning TD with 11 seconds left.

Williams was also outstanding in a 45-20 rout of Duke on Nov. 20, throwing for 276 yards and two TDs and running for 98 yards and two more scores.

With the victories over Georgia Tech and Duke — teams that competed against Florida State in the ACC title game the last two years — most fans would think the games would be his highlights, but not so.

"It was the Notre Dame game … played in South Bend," Williams said. "I loved playing that game since it was on the big stage, playing in that famous stadium and on NBC."

Williams and North Carolina gave Notre Dame all it could handle before the Irish came away with a 50-43 victory. Williams threw for 303 yards and two TDs, ran for 132 yards and a TD and caught a 23-yard TD pass from Quinshad Davis to give the Tar Heels a 36-35 lead late in the third quarter.

The Tar Heels went on to defeat Georgia Tech the following week to give Williams 898 total yards for the two-game stretch, yet another school record.

Fedora has high praise for Williams, saying: "Going into the offseason, we opened the position up, we told them it was wide open even though Marquise had led us to a bowl game last year and won the bowl game.

"First of all, he handled the situation tremendously. He and the backup were competing every day, which made both of them become better players, but also made Marquise grow as a leader and grow as a person. The maturity that he has shown from the point and on into this season has been tremendous.

"He can beat you with his arm or he can beat you with his legs, and with his legs he's able to extend plays and create things that just a guy who stands in the pocket can't do."

Williams is looking forward to playing on Ebron's home field in the bowl game.

"I'm very excited that we're going to be playing in the Lions Den where Eric plays," Williams said. "It's a dream to play in an NFL stadium.

"Eric and I have been close for a long time, and we did everything together. It was sad he wasn't with us, but I'm glad he's doing what he's always wanted to do which is play in the NFL.

"We've stayed in touch, texting about life, about how we never thought we'd be in the position we're in now. God's gift to us is our talent and we're trying to put it into good use."

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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North Carolina vs. Rutgers

Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. Friday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV: ESPN

Outlook: Rutgers (Big Ten) got off to a strong start, winning five of its first six before dropping four of its last six, including one-sided setbacks to Ohio State (56-17), Wisconsin (37-0) and Michigan State (45-3). North Carolina, which has the nation's No. 24 passing attack, defeated Top 25 teams Duke and Georgia Tech and went toe-to-toe with Notre Dame midway through the season before falling, 50-43, Oct. 11 in South Bend.

Tickets: Go to detroitlions.com for more information.