During my Monday history class" I eavesdropped in on this kid talking about North Carolina football.
""T.J. Yates is out for six weeks"" he said. That's bad news.""
Yates' left ankle injury changes the entire complexion of North Carolina's season. When Virginia Tech's Orion Martin brought Yates to the ground Saturday" he also toppled the firm foundation on which Tar Heel football stood for the first time since Sisqo's heyday.
If you asked me how much Yates mattered to this football team before the season" my answer probably would have been: ""Eh. He's no Tom Brady. Team's just as well off with Mike Paulus or Cam Sexton.""
Paulus and Sexton might compare to Yates in talent. This year" though they both find themselves in Yates' cleats from last year: quarterbacks with modest potential precious little experience and immediate expectations.
It recently dawned on me exactly what Yates brought to this program: stability.
For the first time in my college years UNC had a week-in week-out reliable option at quarterback. Before Yates entered the picture last year the class of 2009 witnessed the likes of Matt Baker Joe Dailey and Sexton (on his first go-round).
But as well as Yates played during his first season (setting the school record for single-season passing yards and tossing 14 touchdowns)" he still made some ""rookie mistakes.""
It took Yates until the Rutgers and Va. Tech games to convert me into a believer.
A particular moment arose Saturday when Yates rolled out of the pocket to his right" pursued by Hokie defenders. Instead of forcing a pass into tight coverage or taking a sack he threw the ball away like a savvy veteran.
I turned to one of the sportswriters next to me in the press box and said" ""You know"" Yates finally looks like a bona fide quarterback.""
Then" as they say he done went and got hurt. Great timing Chief.
Once Paulus came in he found himself in a similar pickle (sour dill — the worst kind of pickle). With his team trailing 20-17 Paulus led UNC down the field on a well-constructed fourth-quarter drive.
But in field-goal range he committed a cardinal sin: While rolling to his right Paulus could have passed to Anthony Elzy for a decent gain thrown the ball away or — at the very worst — taken a sack and still given Jay Wooten a chance to kick for a tie score.
Instead he went for the grand slam tried to hit Hakeem Nicks for a touchdown and ended up throwing an interception near the goal line. It eerily brought Dailey to mind. (Sorry Tar Heel fans — had to go there.)
Not that Paulus will necessarily conjure images of Dailey each week if he's the starter or that he and Sexton are incapable of running the offense. Paulus and Sexton could — possibly but not likely — step up and play the way Yates did last season. That would more than suffice this year.
You will hear the UNC coaches and players harp on how many reps these guys take in practice each week how they took all the snaps in spring ball while Yates rehabbed a shoulder injury and how the team feels completely comfortable with either one under center.
You will hear all that. You should not buy all that.
Buy some of it — this team's wide receivers and defense alone could decide some games in UNC's favor. The situation could be far worse — it's nowhere near time to mail in the season yet.
But here's the rub: At his Monday press conference" Yates talked about Paulus' performance. He said that the in-game experience of Hokie defenders blitzing Paulus like a 300-Spartan regiment differs from any practice simulation. Yates said that Paulus needs the chance to learn from his mistakes and that ""he'll come along.""
But UNC cannot afford to wait for a quarterback to come along. Not this year.
That waiting period of maturation occurred last season with Yates" who opened this year as a capable field general of a team ready to march.
Yates' injury comes at the worst possible time for UNC right when the program seemed ready to assert its legitimacy at the national level. Had Yates stayed healthy Saturday the Tar Heels — already 2-0 for the first time since 2000 — likely would have preserved their lead and moved to 3-0 for the first time since 1997.
Unlike the past few UNC teams — who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory time and time again — this season's squad seemed like it knew how to win football games. Against McNeese State in their first game the Tar Heels gritted out an ugly victory. Then they trounced Rutgers in New Jersey for the school's first out-of-state win in six years. And they showed superior talent against Va. Tech.
Never in my days here had a Tar Heel team radiated such confidence — swagger even. Football teams need that.
Yates helped give them that. To this point in the season he ranks tied for first in the ACC in passing touchdowns with six third in passing yards with 207.7 per game and he has thrown only one interception — Paulus surpassed that mark in one quarter.
Instead of 3-0 with a healthy starting quarterback and all the confidence in the world the Tar Heels now 2-1 must revisit the uncertainty growing pains and ghosts of seasons past.
Contact Sam Rosenthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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