Chasing T.J.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When North Carolina's season ended on Nov. 24, it appeared as though the Tar Heels would enter spring practice with a known commodity at quarterback for the first time since 2004. But T.J. Yates' offseason shoulder surgery quickly derailed those plans.

"Things are what you make of them, and what we're trying to do is to make something good out of this," offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach John Shoop said. "We think its great for Cam [Sexton] and Mike [Paulus], because they're getting an awful lot of reps and they're really competing. And we're trying to make it really good for T.J. as well. He's still doing some things, in terms of footwork. He's still to strengthen some weaknesses, with regards to sliding in the pocket."

Yates completed 218 of 365 attempts for a school-record 2,655 passing yards and 14 touchdowns during a stellar rookie season. The Marietta, Ga. native also set UNC freshman records for completions and attempts.

Head coach Butch Davis indicated last week that Yates was expected to be given medical clearance to begin throwing the first week of April, but Shoop said there was no anticipation of the signal-caller participating in any live drills before the practice sessions end next week. But Yates is not letting the opportunity for improvement pass him by this spring.

"He's looking at it from the coaches' perspective," Shoop said. "He's signaling in all of the plays, he's hand-signaling everything that we're doing, and I think he'd agree that it's sharpened a sense that maybe he hadn't worried about so much, in terms of his mental acuity."

Sexton, a red-shirt junior, and Paulus, a red-shirt freshman, have taken the reins in spring ball to determine a primary challenger to Yates when fall training camp rolls around in August.

"These guys are doing a real good job of spitting out the plays and helping their teammates get to the places where they need to get," said Shoop, who confirmed that both quarterbacks are evenly splitting repetitions. "We need to keep working our tails off to be as accurate as we can be. Sometimes we get lazy with the footwork, but overall, I think these guys know where to go with the ball. We've just got to continue working at staying balanced and delivering accurate passes. They both can – they just have to do it."

Davis and his staff have placed an emphasis on the fundamentals this spring, and that includes a number of specifics for the quarterbacks to work on under center.

"The list is long, but the things that we've really been talking about are working the pocket, and that means subtle side steps, subtle slides, keeping our eyes down the field and still delivering an accurate ball," Shoop said. "You can never be too accurate as a quarterback."

Sexton and Paulus have arrived at this point in their respective careers by completely different paths. Sexton is working with his third offensive coordinator, and was an apparent victim of the Frank Cignetti experiment that went terribly wrong in 2006 as the Tar Heels managed only 293 yards and 18 points per game.

"Being in my first offense for the second time – I haven't had that yet," Sexton said back in March. "Being comfortable, being relaxed and being to go out there and not think and just play is how good decision-making happens. When you make it too complicated and just don't go out and play, that's when bad decisions come up."

Paulus was a headliner in Davis' first recruiting class in Chapel Hill, and with such lofty praise prior to even stepping on campus, the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder is expected to push for playing time sooner than later.

But the Syracuse, N.Y. product's first spring as a Tar Heel has not gone as smoothly as he would have liked.

"It's been up and down for me," Paulus said.

The physical requirements of college haven't posed a problem for the 19-year-old. Paulus plans to add another five or 10 pounds to his frame by August, with hopes of knocking his current 4.8 40-yard dash down to 4.65 or 4.7.

Where he admittedly needs more work is this film room. Instead of slowing working him into the playbook last fall, Shoop threw the entire volume at Paulus from Day One. But there's more to the quarterback position than just learning an offense.

"I'm pretty comfortable with the offense, it's just that once get comfortable with the offense, you've got to start doing defenses, knowing where to go with the ball against certain defenses and recognizing coverages and stuff like that," Paulus said. "I've got four months to clean my act up and make a move in August on T.J."


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