T.J. Yates hopes to finish what he starts
In more than a century of North Carolina football, only one other Tar Heels quarterback has more passing yards, touchdown passes, attempts and completions and a higher completion percentage than returning senior T.J. Yates.
At some point during the 2010 season, Yates might break a few of former quarterback Darian Durant's school records.
Or, at some point this coming season (and maybe as soon as the No. 18 Tar Heels' Sept. 4 opener against No. 16 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome), Yates might lose his starting job to a player who has never attempted a pass in a college game.
Such is life for Yates, who enters the 2010 season trying to hold on to the starting job he has held for most of the past three seasons.
"This is my last go-around," Yates said. "It's either now or never."
With one of the country's top defenses coming back, North Carolina is a popular choice to challenge Virginia Tech, Miami and defending ACC champion Georgia Tech in the ACC's Coastal Division.
"If you have a defense like we have, and they're averaging one or two scores a game and stopping the other team, we have to score two or three touchdowns a game on offense," Yates said. "If we can take care of the ball, we'll be hard to beat."
But UNC's offense didn't take care of the football in 2009, which is a big reason the Tar Heels finished with an 8-5 record. UNC's defense ranked No. 19 in the country by forcing 29 takeaways; its offense ranked No. 95 with 27 giveaways.
"We've got a chip on our shoulders," Yates said. "We've got to hold up our end of the deal and keep the defense off the field."
Even with 31 starts in three seasons, Yates, a senior from Marietta, Ga., isn't guaranteed a starting position on the field in 2010. He entered preseason camp earlier this month with a tenuous hold on the starting job and is being pushed by redshirt freshman Bryn Renner, a former prep All-American from West Springfield, Va.
We've got a chip on our shoulders. We've got to hold up our end of the deal and keep the defense off the field.” -- UNC QB T.J. Yates on the Tar Heels' offense
Renner performed well during spring practice, completing 15 of 21 passes for 184 yards with one touchdown in the Tar Heels' spring game. He gave up his job as a reserve first baseman and designated hitter on UNC's baseball team to focus on football.
Tar Heels coach Butch Davis hasn't ruled out playing two quarterbacks against LSU or even turning over the offense to Renner at any point this season.
When Davis was asked about playing Renner at ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C., last month, he said the competition was up for grabs.
"Maybe the opening kickoff of the first game?" Davis said. "Maybe, I don't know. A lot of it is how comfortable is the kid and what level of confidence does he have and how much do the other 10 guys, when he walks in the huddle, how much do they believe and trust that he's going to do the right thing? He's going to get a chance against a pretty good defense for 29 days."
More than anything, Yates is trying to eliminate the mistakes he made last season. He threw for 2,136 yards with 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He has thrown 37 interceptions in 32 career games.
Yates said he studied the video of his interceptions from last season during the summer. For three months, Yates stomached watching his mistakes over and over again.
"There were some interceptions you could live with, like a tipped ball or getting hit as I threw," Yates said. "But there were a lot of turnovers I could have eliminated by making better decisions."
North Carolina offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach John Shoop said Yates has practiced with renewed intensity and focus during preseason camp. Yates said he didn't throw a single interception during his first 13 practices in camp, and said the UNC offense moved the ball "up and down the field" against the Tar Heels' menacing defense during the first scrimmage on Aug. 14.
"At times, he understands he needs to take better care of the football," Shoop said. "[But] he also led us through some pretty good stretches. He was pretty doggone productive and our running game was pretty doggone productive through the meat of our schedule."
But many of Yates' interceptions in 2009 came at the worst possible times for the Tar Heels:
• He threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions in a 16-3 loss to Virginia, the first of which the Cavaliers converted into a touchdown.
• He fired an interception at Florida State's 2-yard line with about five minutes left in the third quarter, which helped the Seminoles wipe out a big deficit and come back in a 30-27 victory.
• He threw three interceptions in a 31-13 victory over Boston College, but the UNC defense intercepted five BC passes and scored two touchdowns on interception and fumble returns.
• He tossed an interception at Pittsburgh's 1-yard line in a 19-17 loss to the Panthers in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Yates isn't the only player to blame for UNC's offensive woes last season. Because of injuries, the Tar Heels used five offensive-line combinations in 13 games and at times started three freshmen. Two freshmen also were part of the receiver rotation, after UNC lost star receivers Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate to the 2009 NFL draft.
"We started six freshmen at times last year," Shoop said. "I think a lot of his quarterbacking was done behind the scenes, whether it was pulling and prodding and getting guys in the right spots. Those freshmen are now sophomores, and I think they're talented. We have good competition at every spot along the offensive line, and I don't think we could say that before."
The Tar Heels also have good competition at quarterback, which is something new for Yates.
"This year is very important for me and our program," Yates said. "I can't hold anything back."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book will be available in bookstores Aug. 24 and can be preordered here. You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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