CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates was walking off the field last Thursday after his team's loss to Florida State when he felt something ping off his helmet -- launched from the stands, he believes, by a Tar Heels fan.
"I guess it's deserving in some way," the junior said this week, still disappointed about his team's 18-point meltdown in the 30-27 loss. "Fans are upset that we're not producing out there on the field. I wouldn't take it to that extreme, but I understand their frustration."
Seven games into the season, neither Yates nor the Tar Heels (4-3, 0-3 ACC) are playing like anyone predicted as they prepare to face 14th-ranked Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-1) in Blacksburg, Va., tonight (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
The same signal caller who broke UNC's single-season passing record with 2,655 yards two years ago has thrown for only 1,028 (with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions) as a junior. The same athlete who led the ACC in pass efficiency as a sophomore isn't even listed in the league's current top 10.
And the team that once thought it had a chance to compete for an ACC championship now must scramble just to make the postseason. With five games left, Yates must lead the Tar Heels to three victories to become bowl eligible. And with games at the Hokies, Boston College and N.C. State, as well as home games against Duke and No. 18 Miami, it looks like a tall order.
"I just know how much my play means to the team, and the offense, and how we work as a whole," Yates said. "So I just know how much it means to play effectively and play right."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Yates has shown flashes of effectiveness this season. The best example was Sept. 12 at Connecticut, when Yates helped engineer a 12-point rally in the fourth quarter to beat the Huskies 12-10.
"There were times this year where he's played the best football I've ever seen him play ... it wasn't always the sexiest football I've seen him play, but it was in and out of the huddle, managing the game, playing with some grit," said John Shoop, the Tar Heels' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
But those times have been tempered by some cringe-worthy outings, such as the 24-7 loss at Georgia Tech, when he completed only 11 of 26 passes for 137 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, alternating between over-throwing and under-throwing his receivers.
No doubt, UNC's inexperienced wide receivers and its hobbled offensive line have contributed to the inconsistency. Five players from last year's offense are now in the NFL. In addition, the line has been thinned by some unanticipated departures.
Aaron Stahl, a starter last year, opted to graduate early. Kevin Bryant quit the team, Carl Gaskins sustained a season-ending knee injury during training camp and at least three other would-be starters have missed games.
"You're also a victim of your supporting cast," coach Butch Davis said of Yates. "You could take John Elway, you could take Troy Aikman or you could take any of the great collegiate quarterbacks, and if you put them with four or five freshmen in the offensive line, two or three freshmen wide receivers and a bunch of guys that get hurt, and you're playing musical chairs with your offensive line, they're probably going to struggle a little bit."
With so much inexperience up front, Shoop has started moving the oft-collapsing pocket to buy time for Yates. Still, he frequently hasn't had enough time to connect downfield, leading to awkward scrambles, sacks and rushed passes that Yates regrets. Against FSU last Thursday, for example, Yates threw a game-changing interception near the goal line in the third quarter as he rolled to his left.
It also doesn't help that short passes still aren't his forte.
"We describe the deep ball as a '3,' and a fast ball is a '1,' and the intermediate ball is a '2,' " Shoop said. "And he has an exceptional '3' and '2'; I think he has a better '1' than people see, and I wish he'd throw that fast ball a little bit more. He's a big man when you stand next to him, and he's strong, and I think he can throw that '1' ball a little bit more. ... I think if we can give him a good pocket, he can throw the short stuff, and he can throw the deep stuff."
Holding out hope
That "good pocket" may be easier to create, as tonight likely will mark the first time since the season opener that linemen Kyle Jolly, Jonathan Cooper and Lowell Dyer play in a game together.
"He had some weapons last year that he doesn't have right now, but man, I sure believe in T.J.," Shoop said.
So do his teammates, who recently voted Yates one of the permanent team captains. That confidence has helped the junior keep his chin up -- even as UNC's student paper makes fun of him in editorial cartoons, the home crowd is booing him and fans are throwing things at him from the stands.
"I talk a lot to Coach Shoop ... he keeps me positive about a lot of things, because I do get pretty down on myself from time to time," said Yates, who missed six games last season because of an ankle injury. "It helps a lot for my teammates to keep me confident -- to ... keep going at it at practice and stuff. I do a lot of self-talk stuff to just get me going during the week, but that's one thing I'm working on, is my confidence."
At home, teammate and roommate Ryan Taylor said, the criticism doesn't seem to affect Yates. If anything, it drives the QB to try to improve even more, and disprove his detractors.
"I think when fans boo, or he reads stuff in the student newspaper -- it may hurt him a little bit, but he understands it comes with the territory, with his position,"said Taylor, a tight end. "I don't think he'd have it any other way, just because of these people that don't know what they're talking about in the first place."
Yates said he is confident that the offense will improve and that the Tar Heels have what it takes to make the postseason. Not that the Hokies' defense and tonight's crowd in Blacksburg, Va., a hostile environment under the best of circumstances, will make it easy.
But Yates' positive attitude is part of the reason Shoop said his confidence in his quarterback has never wavered.
"Let me say this: This is the same guy who, as a freshman, set a number of school records; as a sophomore, led the ACC in passing efficiency, and it really wasn't even close. And as a junior, I think he is a smarter football player than he's ever been, and has faced some circumstances that are really tough," Shoop said.
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