CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky committed to North Carolina as a four-star recruit out of Ohio in 2012. At that time, Bryn Renner was in his first full season as UNC’s starting quarterback and was set to graduate after the 2013 season. Trubisky was expected to slide right into the starting job after taking a redshirt season.
Then Marquise Williams messed everything up.
Now, the Tar Heels should be thankful that Williams did. The junior came in as a change-of-pace quarterback, splitting time with Renner starting about midway through last season before Renner was knocked out for the season at N.C. State.
Williams took over in what was a relatively seamless transition and played some great football in UNC’s final five games (all Williams starts), completing 86 of 151 passes for 1,161 yards (not to mention 61 rushing attempts for 335 yards). He scored 14 touchdowns total and threw just three interceptions.
In the spring, Trubisky was confident. He said head coach Larry Fedora and the offensive staff nearly pulled Trubisky’s redshirt, implying that he would have unseated Williams even midseason last year if not for that redshirt (and Williams’ play).
He thought, in the spring, that the job was his. He may still very well think that, but if he does, he’s not saying.
"You’ve just got to be ready, no matter what," Trubisky said. "Whoever’s out there first, anything can happen. Someone could go down. Coach (Fedora) could make a switch. So you’ve just got to prepare yourself like it’s going to be a starter, and everyone in our quarterback room is doing that."
Williams, meanwhile, has continued to prepare as if he’s going to be the starter. He attended the Manning Academy in the offseason, even getting a compliment from the man himself about his passing form. He’s embraced his role as a leader, and it’s clear that his teammates love him.
Right now, it’s almost all either of them have been talking about since April: Who will be the starter? Do the two of them get along? How will you feel if you’re not the starter? Do you think you should start?
When asked about it this week, all Williams could do was grin.
"It is what it is," Williams said with a wry shrug. "I’m having fun with it at the same time. It humbled me, and it’s humbled me and my family. We don’t stress about anything too much. It’s in my hands. I control my destiny. I’m going to control it, I’m going to keep controlling it and I’m going to have some fun with it."
Sophomore wide receiver Ryan Switzer rooms with Trubisky, but he said that he’s not playing favorites. Though that doesn’t stop both he and his teammates from having a little fun with both of the quarterbacks.
"We’re so laid back with it. Sometimes, we’ll mess around with both of them, talking about, ‘Oh, I’d rather have him throw me the ball,’ or something like that, playing around," Switzer said.
The team has taken their cue from the way both quarterbacks have handled it, too. Williams has said repeatedly how much he values the friendship of Trubisky, and Trubisky talked about what he’s learned from his elder.
"I learned just be confident in yourself, be confident in your abilities. He’s told me that. No matter the competition, you’ve got to believe you can do the job and that’s what I’ve learned from Marquise," Trubisky said. "He’s got a lot of confidence in himself and he’s got confidence in the guys on the offense. I think that’s something I can definitely take away from him."
The two have been splitting reps with the first team, and everyone involved says the split has been completely even.
Just like the battle itself, if you believe their teammates.
"It’s going to be a tough call. I feel for our coaches that have to make it but whatever guy they choose is going to do a great job of leading us," Switzer said. "The good thing about the competition is we don’t skip a beat with whatever quarterback is out there. That says something about your team."
All the skill-position players have continued to insist that they don’t notice a difference with either quarterback in the game. It seems hard to believe. Every quarterback is at least a little different.
But Trubisky, like Williams, is a dual-threat quarterback with good legs who can run a little bit if need be. Williams’ accuracy has improved over his time at UNC, and even, according to his coaches and teammates, in the offseason. Both are, by all accounts, good leaders. And neither has some sort of identifiable tick or affectation in the huddle that would set them apart, according to their teammates.
Junior wide receiver Quinshad Davis could only shake his head with mock exasperation when asked how the two were different.
"That’s what everybody keeps asking me. To me, to tell you the truth, there’s not really a big difference," Davis said. "To tell you the truth, there’s no difference. They’re competing for the same job so they’ve got to do the same thing."
Williams and Trubisky also have a lot more in common than that — they’re both competitive. They push each other.
Yet somehow, they’ve managed, by all accounts, to remain not only civil but friendly. That would seem to ensure — at least, for now — that whoever is chosen for the job, the one who isn’t chosen will take it well and there won’t be any sort of rift or split.
"I’m really happy with the way those guys have competed — not only the way they’ve competed, but the way their friendship has grown, and that’s a big part of it," Fedora said. "Those guys are competing for a job, but they also have grown closer through this whole experience. That’s something that’s very important to the chemistry of our football team."
The Tar Heels open up play on Aug. 30 against Liberty. Fedora has said that his timetable for making a final decision — who will start, if he’ll use a two-QB system, etc. — will be Aug. 30.
That’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course. At some point before the 30th, a decision will be made. A decision might already be made, for all we know. But Fedora isn’t talking.
"We’ll make a decision before the 30th. You guys won’t know it, but we will make a decision before the 30th," Fedora said. "We’ll start as we get into the game-planning, we’ll have a plan of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to implement it, and those guys will be aware of it.
"So it won’t be like we walk out there on the 30th and I flip a coin and throw one of them out there. We’ll have a plan."