In December 2009, Tim Tebow left the University of Florida with two national titles as arguably the most popular player in school history. About 550 miles north in Chapel Hill, N.C., T.J. Yates was getting booed by an arena full of basketball fans on his own campus.
If there’s an underdog quarterback in this weekend’s AFC Divisional round, it’s not the former Heisman winner whose biggest issue is a bad throwing motion. Not compared to Yates, who has the potential to be the most unheralded playoff hero since a former grocery bagger named Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Yates, who was taken by the Houston Texans in the fifth round out of North Carolina in April’s NFL draft, isn’t supposed to be the man leading the team into Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium to take on the Ravens Sunday. After season-ending injuries to starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart propelled the rookie into the starting lineup in Week 13, Yates compiled an 80.7 QB rating before quietly leading the offense to victory in last week’s 31-10 Wild-Card win over Cincinnati.
“He’s about as smart of a quarterback as I’ve ever been around and I coached in the NFL for 12 years,” said former North Carolina offensive coordinator John Shoop, who tutored Yates during his four seasons as a starter for the Tar Heels. “You can never compromise accuracy and intelligence in that league.”
You also can’t account for thick skin, which Yates had to develop quickly as a member of the Tar Heels. Named the starter as a redshirt freshman in 2007, Yates beat out highly touted recruit Mike Paulus for the top job, much to the dismay of UNC fans who scrutinized his every misstep along the way. After a broken ankle in 2008 derailed the team’s ACC title hopes, Yates bore the brunt of fan discontent for the Heels’ underachieving 2009 season, which resulted in him getting booed by basketball fans when a video message he did promoting school spirit was played on the arena’s scoreboard – while he was sitting in the stands.
“One of the things I told so many coaches is, ‘You’re getting a guy with some wear on him,’” Shoop said. “The next time he gets booed ain’t gonna be the first. Even his senior year when he set over 40 school records, he did it without 14 teammates who were pretty doggone good teammates as well.”
Even with NCAA violations tearing apart the Tar Heels roster, Yates had his best season as a senior in 2010, improving his passing numbers significantly and earning honorable mention all-ACC. He received an invite to the NFL scouting combine as a “combine arm,” meaning that he’d be the guy throwing balls to all of the receivers and secondary prospects before getting the opportunity to show off his own skills for scouts.
“You go on the first day and stay all the way to the last day to throw to the defensive guys and stuff,” Yates told Yahoo! last month. “It was kind of annoying because you’re there for eight days straight.”
The extra stay was worth it for Yates, whose skill in operating North Carolina’s pro-style offense was a big selling point to the Texans. He’s been running an NFL-type offense since his senior season at Pope High in Marietta, Ga., where his career almost failed to launch.
“He didn’t play football his junior year and all the assistant coaches were telling me I had to get this guy out,” said Bob Swank, who became Pope High’s football coach in 2004 after serving as an offensive assistant at the University of Toledo. “It was almost like recruiting again. He was a pretty good basketball player and was getting scholarship offers. He’s just a natural talent. He had a big, big arm.”
While Yates now has a big target at his disposal in wideout Andre Johnson, Texans coach Gary Kubiak is likely to try to take Sunday’s game out of his hands by emphasizing Houston’s running game, which ranked second in the NFL.
“It’s a simple formula,” FOX NFL analyst and Super Bowl winning coach Jimmy Johnson said. “Run the football, protect the football and play great defense and you’re going to be in every game. And if your opponent turns the ball over, you’re going to be able to win it. That’s how Houston’s been able to win games.”
But even if that strategy fails and the Texans have to rely on their rookie’s arm, Yates’ former coach thinks he is equipped to handle the moment.
“He’s seen fire and he’s seen rain,” Shoop said. “There’s not going to be anything that’s too big for him.”