Moving Forward

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's toughness was widely questioned following Saturday's collapse to Virginia Tech. Now, with starting quarterback T.J. Yates sidelined for a minimum of six weeks, the Tar Heels must regain their composure to battle through this weekend's disappointments.

When the news broke Monday morning that Yates suffered a small non-displaced fracture in his left ankle on Saturday, message boards and radio shows were lit up with talk of whether or not this injury signified UNC's demise for the remainder of the season.

But if the Tar Heels' rivals in Raleigh have taught football fans anything this fall, it's that it is possible to overcome crippling losses to personnel.

Yates met with reporters Monday afternoon, and his mood was not one of doom and gloom. Disappointed in missing the next six weeks? Yes. Worried about the possibilities for this football program? No.

"We still have a great offense," said Yates, who is currently ranked 12th nationally in passing efficiency (166.87) with 623 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. "Mike [Paulus] or Cam [Sexton] is going to do a great job. Those receivers made me look good out there, so I think they can do a good job with whomever's [under center]."

Paulus played the final 22 minutes for North Carolina on Saturday, completing 3-of-8 passes for 23 yards and two interceptions. But while Davis downplayed those miscues during his weekly Monday press conference, he did not name a starter for this weekend's game at Miami, only saying that Sexton and Paulus will compete for the job this week.

"We want the quarterback to not only be efficient, but we need him to make some plays," Davis said. "Whoever the quarterback is will have to do the same things that T.J. did – get the ball to the right guys, run the offense and we have confidence that both of those guys will be able to handle that."

If there was a silver lining in this unfortunate series of events, it's that Paulus and Sexton split reps with the first and second-team offense for the entire duration of spring ball while Yates recovered from a December shoulder surgery.

And while Davis has not tabbed a starter for Saturday, it's worth noting that Paulus has been taking snaps with the first-team offense daily for the past several weeks, while Sexton has not. Still, the second-year head coach said the decision will primarily revolve around which player suits what North Carolina is looking to do against Miami's defensive scheme, although he added that his offensive approach will not change.

For those questioning the damaging effects of Yates' loss for the next couple of months, Davis had this to say – "It has no impact whatsoever on our defense. It has no impact whatsoever on our special teams, and it is an opportunity for two other guys to step up… They will be prepared and they will be ready to play in this ball game."

But with a young team that lost its composure in the final 20 minutes of the Virginia Tech loss, it may be easy to assume that these players will immediately regain their intensity and focus, but those things are not operated by a light switch.

Let's face it – as much positive momentum that's surrounded this program over the past six months, an equal dose of pessimism and disappointment has rocked the Kenan Football Center in the last 48 hours.

Senior linebacker Mark Paschal may have summed the situation up best for his teammates this afternoon.

"I may be a little biased, but I think [Yates] is one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC," Paschal said. "I think he's gone out there week-in and week-out and proven that. And whenever you lose a playmaker like that, you just have to regroup and rebuild. It's just going to be another story, and I hope that it's going to turn out to be a positive one. That's the way you have to look at it now. What's done is done. It's history, and we're going to have to move forward."

Yates, whose maturity and growth has been dramatic over the past 14 months, is not about to give up on this season, and he has no plans of letting a negative mindset filter into his teammates' collective psyche.

"This is not a time for me to sit back and relax," Yates said. "I've got to get better as a football player while I'm sitting on the sidelines. I'm definitely going to stay in the quarterback room and try to be as much of a leader as possible, because that's what I've got to do to keep this team going."

It's not difficult to enjoy the press clippings that come with preseason hype and an undefeated record. But the true test of a team buying into its coach's philosophy is how the players react when they encounter rough waters, such as heartbreaking losses both on the field and in the locker room.

"There are a lot of steps toward climbing to the top of the mountain," Davis said. "Sometimes you go vertical and you go straight up, sometimes you go sideways and sometimes you take a step down just so that you can get to the next ledge so that you can start going back up again."

The season is still young, and the Tar Heels are still 2-1. But how they respond this week in practice and on Saturday afternoon will speak volumes about the path this program will take this fall.

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