The Marietta, Ga. native is in a dead heat with Boston College's Heisman candidate Matt Ryan and Clemson's Cullen Harper for the top passing honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the scary thing is that he's getting better each week that he steps onto the field.
"I think every time that he plays, he's learned something about not only himself, but about playing," head coach Butch Davis said.
Yates won the North Carolina starting job two weeks into training camp based on his ability to minimize mistakes and take advantage of big-play opportunities, but no one could have honestly expected this level of results.
There have been five pass completions of 50 yards or more in conference play this season and four of those belong to Yates, each to different receivers – Brooks Foster (65 yards), Hakeem Nicks (53), Bobby Rome (53) and Brandon Tate (51).
"T.J. just has something about him," junior offensive tackle Garrett Reynolds said. "He just has a lot of football common sense. He's a great guy in the huddle – he gets in there and controls everybody pretty well, just making sure everybody is calm. He's got a lot of poise and he's a lot of fun to play for."
Certainly, a significant amount of Yates' success has come because of a stellar wide receiver corps (Foster, Nicks and Tate have combined for 674 yards and eight touchdowns) and solid pass protection from the offensive line (only five sacks allowed – fourth in ACC play).
But his uncanny ability to throw the long ball with such precision, combined with his poise in the pocket to create positive plays when the walls are crashing down, are what separate him from many of the Tar Heel quarterbacks of the past.
Davis was also impressed with his young quarterback's focus in keeping his eyes down the field and locked onto his receivers during the Virginia loss on Saturday.
"He moved out of the pocket seven times, and the result was plus-73 yards," Davis said. "That's something that you don't know – how do you know if a kid will have the savvy to do that? Will he just tuck the ball and take off running and get tackled for a three-yard gain, or run out of bounds or throw an incomplete pass? He tried to keep plays alive, which I think is encouraging."
Yates, in his soft-spoken tone, diverted that success from his shoulders to his offensive teammates following the ball game.
"Virginia did a great job covering most of our routes, most of our receivers and a lot of our plays that we had going last week," Yates said. "All of the guys did a great job with the scramble drill getting open [and] improvising on the run."
Davis compared Yates' knack for making plays out of nothing to the traits of NFL great Brett Favre.
"[Favre] became extraordinarily dangerous because now you're scrambling around and you've got an arm that can throw it 45 to 50 yards and the receivers stay alive and separate from guys on the scramble, and then you might get some added big plays," Davis said. "…Now that they know that [T.J.'s] not just going to tuck it and run to the sidelines, [they] need to work to get open. Some did, and some are going to have to learn that."
Not only has Yates been able to create under duress, he's also performed remarkably well when his team needs to put points on the board. In his first road contest against East Carolina, Yates led the Tar Heels 33 yards in the last three minutes to give Connor Barth an opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal with 0:49 seconds to go.
And last weekend against Virginia, Yates executed the two-minute drill to perfection in both halves, marching North Carolina down the field for two touchdowns on 72 and 85-yard drives.
"We were terrible at the two-minute offense during spring practice – we were atrocious," Davis said. "I don't know that we successfully had any of them, and during training camp it was sort of hit or miss… it seems like that is again part of that revelation about T.J. – he doesn't seem to be flapped by the time, the pressure, the score – he just goes out there and plays."
While it's obviously far too early to proclaim Yates as the next Darian Durant in the North Carolina record books, it is important to note that the freshman signal-caller already owns two of the top-10 single-game passing marks in school history and that his nine touchdowns through three games are the most ever by a UNC quarterback (Chris Keldorf had six in 1996).
Yates is on pace to smash Durant's freshman records (1,843 passing yards and 17 touchdowns), as well as challenging numerous ACC freshman records, including passing efficiency (156.00 - Chris Rix, Florida State), 300-yard passing games (4 – Phillip Rivers, N.C. State) and touchdown passes (25 – Phillip Rivers).