Marquise Williams helped lead North Carolina's turnaround from a 1-5 start to a winning record and a bowl victory. Now he is competing with a player who has never taken a college snap to remain the Tar Heels' starting quarterback.
"I'm working for it to be my job," the junior said Saturday during UNC's preseason media day. "I'm working to be on the first team. That's how you have to think. Whatever happens next, happens next."
The battle between Williams and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky is the highest-profile position race for the Tar Heels, who opened preseason camp Friday. The winner will lead a fast-paced spread offense that has put up big numbers in coach Larry Fedora's first two seasons here.
A year ago, UNC's line of succession seemed clear. Bryn Renner was entering his third year as a starter with Williams backing him up and the coaches grooming Trubisky to take over in 2014.
But Williams, a Charlotte native, earned rotation duty as a run-pass threat for UNC, then performed well enough to grow his role before Renner went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in November. Williams started the rest of the way and finished the year as UNC's leading rusher (536 yards, six touchdowns) while throwing for 1,698 yards and 15 touchdowns with six interceptions.
Now the race is a bit more uncertain, though Williams' experience would seem to give him an advantage. He said he made some of his biggest gains by working to become a better practice player, a transition that Fedora said began after Renner went down.
"You saw that he became a different player in practice," Fedora said. "There was no more waiting for my time to come. ... You saw him lock in, you saw him focus, you saw him do the things you knew he was capable of doing. You hadn't seen it a bunch. And now that's what you see — and you saw it from that point on."
Trubisky, from Mentor, Ohio, said he has focused on becoming a more vocal leader. He figures the quarterback that protects the ball and generates the most explosive plays will win the job.
"I'm going to try to be as prepared as I can when I get called on," Trubisky said, "if it's for spurts at a time or over a long period of time. You've just got to be ready when your number is called."
Sophomore receiver Ryan Switzer, who tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt returns for touchdowns, said he thought it was a close race entering camp.
"I'm not a quarterback expert, so as long as that guy is getting me the ball in a good space, I'm OK with it," Switzer said. "And they're both doing that right now. I don't know what the coaches are looking for. I don't know what separates them, what one does better than the other. I just know it is close."
Fedora would not say when he will name a starter, pointing out there is a long time until the opener against Liberty on Aug. 30. He also jokingly asked reporters if they had questions about any other positions after an early series of questions about the QB race.
Williams did not seem to mind answering the questions, though.
"We're pushing each other," Williams said. "That's what we need and that's what I love about the game. I don't want anything to be handed to me. I want to earn what I deserve."
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap