Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates has rebuilt his game from the ground up -- literally.
It started with a small tweak in his footwork -- a wider base that has given him more power. Then, after a non-displaced fracture to his left ankle last year kept Yates out of five games, he had to relearn some fundamental footwork.
|Grant Halverson/Getty Images|
|T.J. Yates is really pushing himself to reach the next level, according to coach Butch Davis.|
It's the first year Yates, who missed the 2008 spring recovering from a torn labrum, has gone through a spring practice injury-free with Butch Davis' staff, and those within the program say he's as healthy and as knowledgeable about the system as he has been since the new staff arrived.
"No doubt," said John Shoop, the Tar Heels' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "He's got a thorough understanding of what we're trying to do offensively. But the things that really show up that others might not notice are just the way he's worked the pocket in practice. He's become a lot more comfortable with his posture in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield and finding a safe spot to keep the play alive.
"I think he's gotten better at what some people call intangibles, but I think you really coach and drill those things as well. Some of the little things he's gotten a lot better at, and I think it's going to serve us well, because we sure need it."
Yates, of Marietta, Ga., wasn't a highly recruited quarterback -- he caught the attention of UNC coaches while they were in Georgia to watch a player on the opposing team -- but he could be one of the most accurate passers in the ACC in 2009. Yates had been leading the ACC and ranked 12th nationally in passing efficiency before he injured his ankle.
"Coming back from the injury was definitely a challenge," said Yates, who was injured on a sack against Virginia Tech. "With my footwork and my ankle, I had to start all over. It was kind of difficult at first. When I got hurt, I thought I was playing some of the best football I've played since I've been here. It was very disappointing for me, but coming back at the end of the season definitely helped me grow as a quarterback, and playing in a big game like that -- it was my first bowl game ever."
And for 58 minutes of it, he played well enough to win. With under two minutes remaining, though, Yates threw his only interception of the game and it contributed to a 31-30 West Virginia win in one of the ACC's most exciting bowl games of the season.
"Every now and then there is a clip of me from freshman year and I'm just like, wow, who is that guy?" Yates said. "It was sloppy, not in-tune .... It's definitely a lot different. Coach Shoop has pretty much transformed me as a quarterback. I'm 10 times better then I was when I got here. It's fun to look back and see how much I've progressed over the years."
Shoop, though, is quick to keep his quarterback grounded. On March 21, the Tar Heels had a scrimmage and Yates thought he did "pretty well." Then he talked to Shoop, who put playing "well" into perspective.
"He pointed out to me that if we're going to be a team that's going to be a national contender, I've got to play a lot better," Yates said. "That kind of opened my eyes a bit. He said, 'Hey, Tim Tebow was probably perfect today.' That opened my eyes a little bit. If we're going to be a national contender and compete at the highest levels, I've got to play as good as them, as good as the guys that are doing the best. That's what I'm striving for -- every practice, every scrimmage, every time we go out there I'm trying to be perfect."
Yates earned his starting job back from Cam Sexton against NC State, but completed 10 of 22 passes with one interception in a 41-10 drubbing. It wasn't until the Duke game the following week that he truly regained his September form. Against Duke, Yates completed his first 15 of 16 passes. He finished having completed 15 of 19 for 190 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-20 win. It was his first win as a starter since Sept. 11 against Rutgers.
Shoop said the last two games of the year, Yates converted about six third downs where he had to either scramble or move to do something to keep the play alive. He also scored a rushing touchdown in the bowl game.
"The last two games of the year, T.J. played as well as I've ever seen T.J. play," Shoop said. "I think he was 14-of-14 at one point in the Duke game. Until the very last play of the West Virginia game, he was absolutely on fire."
Yates has also matured in the huddle. Davis said his quarterback knows how to assert himself, and isn't afraid to talk to a receiver about an adjustment or an offensive lineman about a protection. Because of the young receivers, though, Yates still needs to work on his decision-making and locate his passes a little better. The staff is expecting him to hit the young receivers in stride -- in the numbers.
"The window for me to mess up a little bit -- the opportunity to throw a ball high or low -- Hakeem (Nicks), you could probably throw it in a big 10-foot range and he'd go get it," Yates said, using his whole arm to demonstrate a circle. "If I'd overthrow it, he'd run it down. I could probably never overthrow Brandon Tate if I wanted to, he's so fast. So I've had to be more accurate. I was a blessed quarterback the last couple of years. Having these young guys coming in now, like Josh Adams, this is his first spring, with him you definitely have to put it right on his chest. It's definitely helped me become more accurate."
To help with Yates' decision-making, Davis has tweaked practices. He wants his quarterbacks to extend plays in a Ben Roethlisberger-type fashion. They've blitzed and rushed the quarterbacks more this spring and stayed away from traditional 7-on-7s, which is usually the skill players against the defensive backs. Now there are defensive players coming at the quarterbacks on almost every drill.
"We've stayed away from what would look like easy layups in basketball, where if you threw an incompletion you really had a bad day," Davis. "Now, if you got out and you're 60-70 percent in these drills you've really had a good day."
This spring, Yates has had plenty of those.
"I think he's dramatically a better player today than any time since he's been here," Davis said. "He's up to 225 pounds, he's bigger, he's stronger. ... His mechanics are better, his arm strength is better. He's been in the system for two years, so his grasp of the offense is significantly better and he's really had a good spring. He's really pushing himself to take it to the next level."