T.J. Yates Stays Positive as UNC's On-Field General
While 12 UNC players remain suspended or continue to be held out for precautionary reasons because of two NCAA investigations into the program, Yates says the Tar Heels are composed and confident. They believe in each other more than ever as they continue preparations for Saturday's road game at Rutgers.
That's a good thing, too, because reality can be harsh. A season that held so much promise just two months ago has begun to disintegrate in Chapel Hill, N.C. UNC is now playing for postseason viability -- the Tar Heels haven't started 0-3 since 2003.
"We know we have to get a win -- it's put-up or shut-up time," Yates told FanHouse Wednesday afternoon.
"We've come close. It's not like we are getting the snot kicked out of us. We are close. It's encouraging for us and we know it's going to be a couple things in that game that will get us over the hump. Everyone is hungry to get that first win.
"We knew our situation coming into this (season). We know the guys on the field have what it takes to get it done and nobody is saying what-if this or what-if that. We are not making excuses because we know the players on the field have the ability to win football games."
Yates is determined to make that happen, too.
Yates, one of the most improved quarterbacks in the country, has assumed the role of leader for the Tar Heels. He's personable, polite and refreshingly honest.
"I believe there is a lot of good in all this," Yates said. "I know the team and the coaches are ready to move on and forget about those first two games and get our first win."
Yates certainly understands challenges.
Even with 31 starts in three seasons, Yates, a senior from Marietta, Ga., wasn't guaranteed the starter's role this year. He entered preseason camp with a tenuous hold on the job over redshirt freshman Bryn Renner, a former prep All-American from West Springfield, Va.
Yates practiced with renewed intensity and focus, and his approach has carried over into the season.
He has thrown the offense on his shoulders, completing 65.7 percent of his throws for 621 yards and four touchdowns. Better yet, he has not thrown an interception in his past 89 attempts, dating back to last year's bowl game versus Pittsburgh. Yates also is closing in on several UNC career passing marks.
Additionally, Yates has embraced the role as team leader, though he shares the responsibility equally among his fellow seniors.
"It's my job, not only for the offense but the entire team, to keep everyone's mind in the right spot, whatever the situation we get into," Yates explained. "We are close though. I've been with a lot of these guys for four or five years now. The senior class is very large and we play a large leadership role and rely on each to get this team focused or get this team ready in whatever way we have to."
Yates was sharply criticized by fans a year ago for UNC's struggles on offense. The Tar Heels didn't take care of the football, a big reason they finished 8-5. UNC's defense ranked No. 19 in the country by forcing 29 takeaways; its offense ranked No. 95 with 27 giveaways.
Injuries also played a role in UNC's inconsistency.
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.
Yates, who stopped reading newspapers, listening to the radio and scanning Internet sites nearly three years ago in regard to UNC reports, says off-season workouts helped players gain trust and confidence in each other. Yates' personality also may play a role in that development.
"I am not the biggest rah-rah guy. I am not going to jump around and yell and scream and do all that stuff before a game. That's really not my thing," Yates said.
"But when we are in the game, in the huddle, on the sidelines, I am a very talkative guy, getting people going, getting people amped up. Off the field, I am a guy's guy. I am not way too serious off the field. I am serious when we have to be. I like to keep guys loose, joke around a little bit, just kind of ease the tension. Sometimes that's what guys need."
What the Tar Heels need more than ever at the moment is a win. And there's no need to play what-if with Yates. He says the dozen suspended players -- six of them defensive starters -- are working hard and remaining positive.
"We are not making excuses," Yates said.
"I know I can play a lot better. I just watched the (Georgia Tech) game film with coach (John) Shoop (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) and we both thought I didn't play as well as I could have. He pointed out that even with the game I had (18 of 24, 209 yards), we are sitting here pissed off. When you consider that a bad day, that's a good thing.
"Everyone is (together). It's not like the (suspended) players aren't in the picture. They are still practicing hard every day. It's not like they are moping around. We know it's a little frustrating because we know the situation. And coming so close the first two games makes it frustrating. We feel we are two to three plays away from being 2-0 right now -- and we're talking a whole different story.
"Guys are frustrated because we are so close, but it's also encouraging in that same light because we know we need to do a couple of little things to get over that hump and into the win column."