Freshman QB exceeds expectations
Around this time last year, the number nine could have meant a lot of things for North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates - for instance, the number of fans who knew his name.
But now, after three impressive performances to open his freshman campaign, No. 9 has a slightly different value, such as Yates' national passing efficiency rating.
In the biggest surprise of the young season, Yates has shown little of the expected freshman jitters and has led a rushing-deficient offense to 88 points in three games on the strength of his 901 passing yards and nine touchdowns.
"I try not to think about (statistics) at all," Yates said Wednesday. "People, my mom, she always tells me that kind of stuff - I try to ignore it as much as possible."
Of course, head coach Butch Davis is quick to point out that his quarterback is learning every week.
"He's still got a long way to grow; he's only three games into his career," he said. "And obviously every single week provides him an opportunity to continue to learn to read coverages, to read fronts, to read blitzes."
But despite Yates' inexperience, the coaching staff has not been shy about letting him go for big plays, right from the opening drive against James Madison. Wide receivers Brandon Tate, Brooks Foster and Hakeem Nicks all have touchdown catches for more than 50 yards this season.
"That was kind of our M-O from the start," Yates said. "(Offensive coordinator John) Shoop has always been like that, ever since he got here. Just big plays, high energy. Those type of plays get a team going really well."
And, as Yates is the first to point out, having athletic receivers to go deep enhances the odds of the home-run ball working out for UNC.
"I think it all starts with the offensive line, a lot of big plays they take a lot of time to get those receivers all the way downfield," Yates said. "The athletes that we have, going and getting the ball - you saw Hakeem's catch on Saturday. That ball was overthrown if I threw it to anybody else. He jumped like 12 feet in the air to go get that thing."
But there is another way to move the ball on offense, and the Tar Heel running backs haven't been having much luck at it so far. UNC has amassed just 239 rushing yards with an average of 2.7 yards per carry. Freshman Johnny White leads the squad with 158 yards and 4.2 yards a carry with no touchdowns.
"I feel like we need to step up," White said. "Because in order for those big plays to keep happening and people not to key on the run, we need to make some big plays."
Although the rushing problem hasn't hurt Yates so far, if the running backs can't get going, the passing game could run into trouble.
"You would think that the passing yardage on the flip side of that would actually help the running game," Davis said. "It could become a blessing."
For the moment, Yates and Co. are just worried about bringing their aerial attack Saturday against No. 23 South Florida as the Tar Heels try to get back to .500.
"If the running game's not going early, we definitely have to get the passing game going," Yates said. "We can't start off like we did at Virginia."
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