North Carolina coach Larry Fedora never discusses injuries, but it was plain to see quarterback Marquise Williams played hurt last season.
Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell admitted as much in a recent conversation. So with Williams on the shelf this spring because of a hip injury, coaches have started to rethink just how much they'll use him in the run game.
The honest answer is the Tar Heels feel they have to do a better job balancing his running and passing responsibilities. That does not mean Williams will never run the ball again; but it does mean North Carolina must get its running backs more involved and more effective -- especially beyond the line of scrimmage.
“We want to get those running backs opportunities,” Littrell said in a recent phone interview. “If we can get them touching the ball 35, 40 times a game, that’s what we want. We’ve got some depth at that position, so they can roll in and be fresh. This spring, we’ve been working on that and really have not done much with the quarterback run game.”
Williams took way more hits in 2014 because he started twice as many games. With the running backs and offensive line mostly ineffective, Williams had a career-high 193 carries and led the team with 788 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.
He was also sacked 26 times. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, Williams was knocked down on 89 of his pass attempts. While this translates into roughly the same percentage as 2013 (about 18 percent), he suffered more wear and tear because he played more.
Williams appeared off against Miami, though neither he nor Fedora would admit he was hurt. He took several brutal hits against Virginia; and he had to leave the regular-season finale against NC State with a leg injury. Those are just three games that stand out in a season with 13 starts.
“We’re just trying to take some of the shots off him,” Littrell said. “Obviously, where he’s very effective is he’s definitely a huge run threat so if that’s what’s being productive throughout the game, that’s what you’re going to call. You’re trying to call plays you think are going to work. But we’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball to those other guys.”
Indeed, the top two running backs in yards rushing -- T.J. Logan and Romar Morris, combined for 184 carries. Elijah Hood had 67 but he was hurt for nearly half the season. With a healthy Hood, Logan, Morris and several other backs returning, the pieces are in place to lessen the load on Williams’ shoulders.
“Taking that many shots throughout the season, it’s tough,” Littrell said. “Of all the people who can do it, it’s Marquise, a bigger type guy but it still takes its toll and hinders some development as a passer. He was banged up and a lot of that’s due to the quarterback run game.”
North Carolina also should be better on the offensive line, with more experienced (and stronger) players returning. Littrell said a big goal during spring was to make his entire offense more physical, from the offensive line to the backs to the receivers. Another point of emphasis to help out the run game has been on perimeter blocking, and getting his running backs to be more aggressive in hitting open holes.
“I don’t care if you’re 5-8 or 6-4, you’re going to be able to block on the perimeter, you’re going to put your face on people and you’re not going to shy away from it,” he said. “To me, it’s a mentality of getting the job done. That’s at every position we have. We have to be a more physical football team across the board if we want to be a top offense.”
That will then translate into a healthier -- and better -- Williams.