Yates in Charge

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Twelve months ago, T.J. Yates was a wide-eyed freshman quarterback preparing for his first action on the Division I level. Now, the red-shirt sophomore is the confident leader of North Carolina's offensive attack as the Tar Heels turn their focus towards McNeese State.

North Carolina's final activity of training camp was a mock game held Saturday morning at Kenan Stadium. With an emphasis on covering the unexpected versus standard down-and-distance matchups between the offense and defense, the Tar Heels worked on everything from last-second plays to goal line defense to pinning punts inside the 10-yard line.

"We pretty much went over every single situation that could ever happen in a football game," Yates said Saturday afternoon, sporting new white shoes complete with navy accents. "It was a good learning experience just to get us ready for anything that might happen during the season. Probably half of the stuff that happened [in the mock game], we might not even see in the season, or until later on in the season… it was a good mental exercise in keeping everyone focused."

After feeling soreness in his surgically-repaired right shoulder through the first couple of days of preseason practice, Yates indicated that he is now at that point where the injury doesn't even enter his mind.

The Marietta, Ga. native describes the improvement of UNC's offense from last August to now as there being "worlds of difference." No longer will the players in the huddle talk amongst themselves to make sure that they understood the sideline signal call correctly.

"We're so much smarter, everyone knows what they're doing [and] we've got some more wrinkles that we're going to throw into the offense that will help us get in and out of good plays," Yates said. "Last year, we may have thought, ‘I hope everybody knows this,' or ‘I hope everybody runs this right,' and this year it's not even a thought."

Part of that is Yates' maturation process as a quarterback. He's never been one to force his opinions on his teammates, but the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has stepped sure-footed into the leadership responsibilities that his position requires, and his Tar Heel brethren have responded in a positive manner. There is no doubt that this is T.J. Yates' team.

The red-shirt sophomore answered reporters' questions efficiently and thoroughly on Saturday, praising the secondary for its vast improvement since the spring and talking about how the offense is learning to adjust to actually having a legitimate rushing attack this fall.

Yates attributes a large portion of his growth to offensive coordinator John Shoop, a longtime NFL assistant who experienced growing pains of his own during his first season of D-I ball in 2007.

"One of the things that he does when we meet and go over game plans and watch film is to just make sure that we're on the same page and that we're thinking the same way," Yates said. "If we're thinking two different things, we won't mesh well together. He does a great job of getting me prepared for the games – everything he's thinking, I'm thinking the same thing. We try to be in each other's head as much as possible."

Shoop will move to the press box this season after spending last fall roaming the sidelines, shouting out instructions to Yates in the huddle and holding teaching sessions in between offensive series. With a better understanding of what each other are thinking, Yates and Shoop will use graduate assistant Wes Satterfield as a communications middle man on the field.

That change has been worked on ad nauseam during training camp, with Shoop randomly appearing all over the place – sometimes in the tower, sometimes in the press box and sometimes on the opposite side of the field.

But that's the Shoop that Yates has grown to know and love. The Georgian said that it's not uncommon to receive a text message from his offensive coordinator at 10 pm asking him opinions on new plays or strategies, or to have 10-15 minute long phone conversations on different offensive concepts at random times throughout the day.

"He has the most energy out of any coach that I've ever been around," Yates said. "He never stops – he's always on the move [and] he's always brewing something up. He's the mad scientist up there in his lab. He's always got something new, something that he's thinking about – anything to make this team better."

That approach maximizes the potential of every player on the roster. If someone has talent, then this UNC offense is going to find a way to use that individual, and while the usual suspects will be the focus this fall, several new faces have emerged.

Ask any Tar Heel, including Yates, who has been the biggest surprise of training camp, and the answer comes back as if the players' response is universally set to repeat – safety-turned-running back Shaun Draughn.

"One day I think Greg [Little] was down and Ryan [Houston] was down, and Shaun had to go with the ones for the day," Yates said. "He was only like four or five days into playing running back, didn't really know much, but he stepped it up big and took his chance and just exploited it, because he did good that day and he's impressed the coaches and impressed everybody on this team by how hard and how fast he runs."

Draughn is still working to pick up protections and becoming comfortable with his fits, but his presence will be felt before North Carolina moves too deep in its schedule. Two other players that have emerged this preseason have been wide receivers Rashad Mason and Kenton Thornton, who Yates suggests will provide legitimate depth behind the "Big 3" of Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster.

"They're both big huge targets that are good in the jump ball situations," Yates said. "They're big, strong guys that can fight off a little DB. Both of them have done a great job contributing all training camp, and they're both physical specimens. They've got all the tools, so I think either one of them can step in and do just as well as Hakeem."

Last August, Yates was very careful with his words to the media, in an obvious attempt to not say the wrong thing. Chances are pretty good that he took the same approach in the locker room, as well as in the huddle, as a red-shirt freshman signal-caller last fall.

If his current confidence level and relaxed state are any indication, this Tar Heel offense will be a much-improved product on the field in 2008, thanks in large part to his immense growth off the field.

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