CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Fans were so frustrated with North Carolina’s offense last season, they threw a coin at quarterback T.J. Yates — in his home staduim. But Yates got a real taste of fan frustration when a youngster mailed him an angry letter.
The author — whom Yates guessed was maybe a third grader — wrote stars in place of profanities.
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Yates knows all that consternation probably hasn’t vanished just yet. Not with talented redshirt freshman Bryn Renner competing for the starting job heading into Saturday’s nationally televised spring game. It will be the first chance for fans to compare a three-year starter in Yates with the untested — and ever-popular — backup QB.
“I have (the players’ and coaches’) trust, but I want to gain as much trust as possible,” Yates said. “Obviously with the fans, I’ve got to gain their trust back as well. But first things first, my coaches and my teammates are the guys that really matter to me.”
Yates started his first game as a freshman and even threw a 65-yard touchdown on his first college pass. But he hasn’t had consistent success, whether because of injuries or inexperience at key positions around him.
He needed shoulder surgery after his freshman year, then suffered a broken ankle early in his sophomore season that cost him two months. He stayed healthy last year, but played behind an injury-depleted offensive line and a greener-than-green receiving corps. He failed to throw for 140 yards in seven games and threw more interceptions than touchdowns in five.
Those struggles were glaring compared to a defense that ranked among the nation’s best on a team that entered the year ranked in the Top 25. And fans took much of it out on Yates, culminating with the night he threw for just 64 yards and was hit in the helmet with a coin while walking off the field after North Carolina blew an 18-point third-quarter lead in a 30-27 loss to Florida State.
The angst continued after the season, too.
Fans booed his image on a scoreboard in the Smith Center during basketball games several times, including at least once when he was in the building. Yates said he could only pull down his cap to cover his face.
“One of the real measuring sticks for any quarterback is how mentally tough are they?” said coach Butch Davis, who is preparing for his fourth season. “There are some guys that have phenomenal athletic ability and they’ve absolutely got a fragile ego and any criticism just crushes them. The thing that speaks volumes about T.J. is that he is getting mentally tougher.
“If you play that position … somebody’s going to criticize that you didn’t play perfectly and you’ve got to know: What are the expectations? What can I truly control? What am I accountable for?”
Yates hasn’t offered excuses for his performance. Instead, he readily admits he must play better and patiently answers every uncomfortable question. He knows the pressure is on to play better considering the Tar Heels return 21 starters from a team that won eight games and reached a bowl for the second straight season.
Everything starts with beating out Renner — who is also playing baseball — this spring.
“I’m always going to think of it as mine, but I know Bryn’s going to push me in every way that he can because he’s a great competitor,” Yates said. “If he’s going to be here just to take second place, he shouldn’t be here. He’s here to push me and try to get the starting spot.”
Renner, described recently by receiver Greg Little as a strong-armed and “very raw talent,” refuses to get drawn into a discussion about whether he can beat Yates for the starting job.
“We really react like it’s not even an issue and I don’t think it’s an issue,” Renner said. “As of now, he’s the starter and I’m just trying to learn from him and compete every day to see who the best man is to play.”
That’s fine by Yates. That’s a whole lot simpler than worrying about anything coming from the stands.
“I’ve definitely learned to deal with it, I’ll tell you that,” Yates said. “If you worry about that type of stuff, it’s not going to make you play any better.”