T.J. Yates ready to step into starting NFL job, UNC history

jgiglio@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2011 

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Houston Texans quarterback T. J. Yates looks to pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars Nov. 27, 2011 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

AL MESSERSCHMIDT — Al Messerschmidt - Getty Images

It wasn't until Wednesday, three days after his NFL debut, that it hit T.J. Yates that his life was about to change.

The media throng, at least 20 deep, waiting at his locker opened his eyes to that. That's how life goes for a starting quarterback in the NFL, though.

"It's all been kind of crazy," Yates said in a phone interview Thursday.

Yates, the rookie quarterback for the Houston Texans, is about to step into the heat of an NFL playoff race and the history books.

The former North Carolina quarterback is slated to start for the division-leading Texans on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. No former UNC player has ever started at quarterback in the NFL, according to the school's own research.

Before last Sunday's relief appearance in Houston's 20-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, it had been almost 25 years since a former UNC quarterback, playing the position, attempted a pass.

The novelty of Yates' place in Carolina history is second to the reality of the situation. At 8-3, the Texans lead the AFC South and are on the verge of their first playoff appearance since joining the NFL as an expansion team in 2002.

"I'm doing the best I can to handle it," Yates said. "I just want to make sure we keep winning."

The Texans have won five straight, with Yates completing 8-of-15 passes for 70 yards against the Jaguars last Sunday, his first NFL action. Yates, a fifth-round pick last April, relieved backup quarterback Matt Leinart, who broke his collarbone in the second quarter. Leinart was playing because oft-injured starter Matt Schaub is on the shelf for the season with a foot injury.

Up 17-10 in the second quarter, Yates led the Texans to a field goal in his first official game action since the wild ending to UNC's Music City Bowl win.

"Nothing seemed to rattle him," Houston coordinator Rick Dennison told the Houston media on Wednesday.

That's because in four years as UNC's starter, Yates saw it all — good and bad. Whether it was being booed at home during a football game, or infamously once at a Tar Heel basketball game, Yates was unflappable in his record-setting career with the Tar Heels.

He emerged as both the team leader and spokesman during the NCAA investigation of the 2010 season, which cost the Tar Heels 13 players for the chaotic opener against LSU — a game which Yates threw for 415 yards and came within a dropped pass of an upset and epic comeback.

Yates capped his senior season with late-game heroics in the Music City Bowl, spiking the ball with 1 second in regulation, which eventually set up a 30-27 UNC win in overtime.

"This season has actually been just as hectic," Yates said. "We've lost (star defensive end) Mario (Williams), Arian Foster for a game, Andre Johnson for a couple games, two quarterbacks, just about a player a week to injuries."

With a two-game lead in a division, the Texans are in control of their playoff fate. There has been some apprehension around the city about Yates taking over the offense with so much at stake.

Yates has already won over the confidence of his teammates.

"Everybody keeps talking about T.J.," Johnson, the team's star receiver, told the media on Wednesday. "T.J.'s going to be fine, he'll get the job done."

A stray option pass by Ronald Curry, a former UNC quarterback who played receiver in the NFL, not withstanding, a UNC quarterback hadn't attempted a pass in an NFL game since Scott Stankavage appeared in two games for the Miami Dolphins in Oct. 1987. Yates exceeded Stankavage's career yardage (66 yards) in his relief performance against Jacksonville.

For his part, Yates has taken the opportunity in stride. It helps, he said, to have the No. 1-rated defense in the NFL, and two of the best running backs, in Foster (805 rushing yards) and Ben Tate.

"We're finding ways to win," Yates said. "Hopefully, I can help us keep that going."

Giglio: (919) 829-8938

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