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July 28, 2009CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates said he hasn't seen a story this summer that did not have the "if clause" in it - as in, if he can stay healthy UNC might be able to win again.
Yates started all 12 games his redshirt freshman year, but he was not himself toward the end because of a shoulder injury that led to offseason surgery.
A year ago, he played exceedingly well until he broke his ankle against Virginia Tech in the third game.
"He was off to a great start," coach Butch Davis said. "He couldn't have played much better than how he had played at Rutgers that night."
Yates went 14-of-22 passing for 221 yards and three touchdowns against Rutgers. When he broke his ankle against the Hokies, UNC had a 17-3 lead and Yates was 11-of-18 for 181 yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately, the injuries have continued. Earlier this year, right after spring practice had ended, he injured a thumb and missed a few weeks of throwing with his teammates.
"It's kind of motivation to get in the weight room and get as strong as possible," Yates said. "I also wanted to get in the film room as much as possible and get as smart as possible, get yourself out of bad situations. You have to throw the ball and get the ball out of your hands as quickly as possible."
There are plenty of people who are worried about the depth along UNC's offensive line and the effect that might have on Yates' health. But he says it was not the line's fault when he got sacked against Virginia Tech.
"The problem on that play was not my blocking," Yates said. "I should have hit my check-down. Greg Little was wide open right over the ball. I decided to scramble. If I had just got rid of the ball, there wouldn't have been a guy close to me. But I decided to scramble and run around, and it was one of those freak accidents."
Davis and offensive coordinator John Shoop have immense confidence in Yates. They reinserted him into the lineup last season when he returned from the ankle injury, even though Cameron Sexton had played really well and had a winning record as the Tar Heels' starting QB.
"I think there are steps [in a quarterback's progress]," Davis said. "We started to see a little bit of this in T.J., and then he missed all those games. One of the steps you want, not intangible steps but performance steps, is to have such a great command of the offense and where everybody is that you can get to the second and third reads in the progressions and some of the plays. You already know that one is gone. This coverage takes that away; I'm not even going there right now.
"You're starting to see some of that. The other thing that I love, and I started to see even more with T.J., was his ability to stay alive and extend the play in the pocket. John Shoop does as a good a job of coaching quarterbacks as anyone I've been around. He always talks about quarterbacks never throw from balanced-perfect, five-step drops. There are always people flying across your face. Somebody is bumping into you. You have to move. His accuracy in the spring was outstanding in those situations. Getting the ball to the running backs, getting the ball to the tight ends, getting the ball to the wide outs from unusual positions."
As far as staying healthy, Yates said much of that burden rests with him and his ability throw on time.
"Just getting rid of the ball to the playmakers on the team is going to help me stay healthy," Yates said.