April 07, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: North Carolina senior T.J. Yates.
• Typecasting. A tall (6'4") but totally obscure recruit out of Georgia, Yates wasn't supposed to win the starting job at UNC, and wasn't necessarily supposed to keep it when he emerged on top of the depth chart in 2007, the same year that ace recruit Mike Paulus arrived as the resident "Quarterback of the Future." But Yates took every significant snap that season, hung onto the job through an injury-plagued 2008 and enters '09 firmly entrenched through 31 starts in three years, outlasting both Paulus and his predecessor, Cam Sexton, on the roster.
Still, the jury's out ... no, that's not right: To be more precise, the jury is in for a lot of Tar Heel fans, and it's booing loudly after a disappointing junior campaign that seemed like a step back from a relatively assured sophomore turn in 2008. (When you prompt substantial boos from North Carolina fans during a basketball game at the conclusion of a winning season, it's safe to say something has gone very wrong.) Yates isn't a big, downfield slinger (he's a fringe draft prospect at best), isn't likely to put up fiery numbers (he hasn't had a 300-yard passing game since his third start as freshman) and will never present even the remotest threat as a scrambler (the longest run of his career covered 14 yards, also in his freshman year). From the beginning, his role in offensive coordinator John Shoop's conservative, "West Coast" approach has been to make the routine throw to the right guy while avoiding mistakes, of which there were far too many last year for a three-year starter who doesn't produce a lot of big plays at the other end of the spectrum.
• At his best ... Yates can get the ball downfield on occasion -- draft-bound Hakeem Nicks emerged as a viable big-play threat on the receiving end in 2008 -- but Yates' best asset has always been his consistency on the quick, safe throws that make up most of Shoop's offense: He's hit 60 percent of his passes all three seasons, with double-digit touchdowns in each. 2008 is the obvious high point, albeit an ill-fated one after an ankle injury sparked UNC's collapse in a key September date with Virginia Tech and forced Yates out of all or most of the next seven games.
Prior to the injury, Yates had thrown for three touchdowns in a Thursday night, 44-12 blowout at Rutgers that went a long way toward justifying the Tar Heels' preseason buzz as one of the most improved teams in the country, and led UNC to a 10-3 lead over Va. Tech with a touchdown pass before being knocked out with the game more or less in hand in the third quarter; the Hokies subsequently scored 17 unanswered for the win, effectively eliminating the Heels from contention in the Atlantic Division. Yates returned in November to throw for three touchdowns in a win over Duke and two more in a wild, one-point bowl loss to West Virginia. If he'd maintained his pass efficiency rating over a full season, it would have easily led the conference.
• At his worst ... It's one thing to be excessively safe with the ball, which UNC undoubtedly was last year -- Yates finished dead last in the ACC in yards per attempt and per completion despite his high completion rate, at one point going seven straight games without completing a pass longer than 29 yards -- but to be interception-prone at the same time is a double disaster. Yates was picked 15 times in '09, more than any other ACC quarterback except Miami's gunslinging Jacory Harris, at the head of an attack that finished 10th in the league in scoring and 11th in total offense, mainly as a result of the deficiency in the passing game. In September alone, Yates threw two interceptions apiece against UConn, Georgia Tech and Virginia, in which UNC combined for 22 points.
One low point was a three-interception, zero-touchdown debacle at Boston College in November (a game the Tar Heels actually won easily thanks to two defensive touchdowns and another turnover that set the offense up at the B.C. one-yard line), but before that was the second half collapse against Florida State on a Thursday night in mid-October that embodied all of Carolina's frustrations with the offense. After scrambling 10 yards to put the team ahead 24-6 early in the third quarter, Yates lobbed an interception at the FSU goal line that turned the game for the Seminoles, who outscored UNC 24-3 over the last 23 minutes. After that throw, Yates was 4-of-10 for 16 yards and two sacks, and didn't attempt a pass on the Heels' final scoring drive, an 83-yard field-goal march that remained entirely on the ground.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Yates suffered undoubtedly the most hilarious injury of 2009 when he sprained his thumb playing ultimate frisbee shortly after spring practice, forcing him to wear a splint while undergoing six weeks of rehab and raising questions about his "durability." It had no effect on his play last season, unless he was quietly muttering "damn ultimate frisbee" under his breath on overthrows.
• What to Expect in '10. Odds are, Yates will be significantly better in the interception department, but within the same, conservative system, he'll probably still come in for a few boos at some point, and maybe even for a temporary benching or two to get one of the heirs apparent, Braden Hanson or Bryn Renner, some live reps. Cutting down on the picks will help the overall numbers, but at this point the dye seems pretty well cast on the persistent problems: Too little creativity and too few big plays to make the offense anything but mediocre in the big picture.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Kevin Riley, California. ... Chris Relf, Mississippi State. ... Landry Jones, Oklahoma. ... Andy Dalton, TCU. ... Garrett Gilbert, Texas. ... Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin.