Plenty of heat to go around after the epic fail in Atlanta over the weekend. Most of the ire has been directed at the offense and kicking game with a slowly dawning realization that the defense simply did not do enough to stop Georgia Tech on 3rd down. As with any loss, sub-par performances are held up as some sort of "bloody glove" proving a player is guilty of crimes against winning football. T.J. Yates is getting his share of criticisms and rightfully so. Yates will be the first to tell you he played like crap. However I think there is an idea starting to pervade itself withing the Tar Heel fan base that somehow Yates is regressing or maybe is not all that and a bag of chips. I am not sure that is the case in fact I am convinced that Yates has always been a slightly above average QB at best who is capable of getting the job done most of the time as long as he has help. For various reasons having to do with said help and yes, some poor play on his part, that job is not being done to a satisfactory level.
First of all the stats:
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In many ways his stats have really not moved. In 2007 it was his first season, Butch Davis' first season and for that matter the first year for Hakeem Nicks. Yates had some good games and ones that were downright awful. In terms of yardage, the two best games of his career game in 2007 versus ECU(20-32, 344 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) and UVa(25-38, 339 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT.) Strangely enough those games were back-to-back. Following those two games, Yates never broke 100 again in QB rating posting a 9.6 against South Florida. Still, Yates finished the season with a respectable rating though the INTs outnumbered the TDs by four. The only caveat concerning 2007 is Yates struggled with a shoulder injury toward the end of the season which later requires surgery causing him to miss spring practice.
2008 stands as one of the great "could have been" seasons since Yates was largely effective in the games he did play in save versus NC State. Yates missed six games and played sparingly in one other due to a broken bone suffered against Virginia Tech. Up until the moment Yates was injured, he appeared to be on his way to a potentially great season having played his highest rated game versus Rutgers in a 44-12 win on the road(14-22, 221 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) and was 11-18 with 181 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT when he left the game against the Hokies. After the Mike Paulus debacle Cam Sexton filled in quite well and after Yates got past the NCSY game, he played fairly well versus Duke and West Virginia. At the end of day Yates had a strong QB rating of 153.6 having thrown 11 TDs versus only 4 INTs and racking up 8.7 yards per pass to the tune of 1168 yards in basically half a season of work.
So what do we have this season? Based on the stats it is looking more like 2007 than 2008 which probably explains the frustration. The INTs and TDs are running neck and neck again unlike last season and the yards per pass are actually down below what they were in 2007. Yates is also catching heat because what we are seeing does not look great. There are plenty of complaints circulating about his accuracy(despite the 60% completion percentage) and decisionmaking in general. For example, on the 2nd Tar Heel possession of the 2nd half against Georgia Tech, Yates threw perhaps one of the worst INTs ever dropping the ball into the company of three Yellow Jacket defenders as though he expected the receiver to be there. According to the TV analysts, the receiver stopped short on his route but still, it was a horrendous decision and came at the worst possible time with the Heels trailing 10-0 and the defense gassed from having been on the field so much.
So what has changed? With Yates, I am not sure anything. As I said above, Yates is a good but not great QB which means his not the kind of QB who is going to make a ton of great throws to compensate for a young receiving corps or porous offensive line. If we compare last season to this one, the three factors jump.
1. Attrition at wide receiver. Actually complete turnover at WR is a better way to describe it.
2. Offensive line issues.
3. Zero ground game.
The offensive line probably has the largest bearing on this discussion because when the OL is not doing its job not only is Yates vulnerable in the pocket but you also have no running attack. On Saturday against Georgia Tech, UNC had completely opposite offensive personality as the Yellow Jackets. While the Jackets ran the ball for 317 yards, UNC did 300 yards less work on the ground. Seriously, 17 yards of rushing is like unfurling a banner that says "It's Going to Be a Pass!" If you cannot balance the offense and the OL is suspect you can rest assured the opposing defense is going to play the pass. As a side note, this is how it went in 2007. Opposing defenses figured out fairly quickly that the Heels could not run the football so they played the Heels to pass. That, plus better competition is why Yates passing numbers dried up in 2007 following those two monster outings. Teams made sure to stop the pass and it worked. Since there was no rushing attack, there was no means of making them pay for it. In other words, the whole offense(save Erik Highsmith) stinks not just the QB and if the whole unit has issues, the QB is unfortunately going to have issues as well.
The other significant factor is the attrition at WR. As good has Erik Highsmith has been, he is still not Hakeem Nicks, despite wearing #88. Greg Little is another topic altogether and an illustration of what not living up the hype looks like. Dwight Jones has been injured. Zack Pianalto showed promise at TE but suffered a freak injury versus UConn. Jhay Boyd shows promise but he is neither Brandon Tate or Brooks Foster. In my opinion Yates is a capable QB but at the same time a QB's success depends somewhat on the wide receivers and in some respects I think the glut of talent at WR may have served to inflate Yates a tad. This weekend brought complaints about Yates throwing behind receivers. In some cases I am not sure that is really any different that last season. What is different is you do not have a tall receiver with bear claw like hands doing this:
I think Nicks and Tate both made some catches on some poorly thrown balls. I also think having receivers with that kind of talent means they can get open more often making the QB's job easier. That being said, Yates is still completing 60% of his passes. The INTs are up and the yards per pass are down but that may have something to do with fewer yards after catch which Nicks and Tate were very good at getting.
So what does it all mean? I think Yates is still a good QB. Some of the issues we see are decisionmaking errors on his part which can be rooted in part to the above factors making life easier for the opposing defense. The rest of belongs to Yates. He is certainly not absolved from poor play because of the circumstances. However taking into account these various issues, it serves to explain what we might be looking at. The silver lining is Dwight Jones should be ready to go very soon and Zack Pianalto is slated to return in a few weeks. Lowell Dyer is also set to return in the near future at center bolstering that offensive line. The only question we cannot answer is what to do about running game. Shaun Draughan and Ryan Houston have to do more than a combined 50 yards of rushing which was mostly negated on the bad shotgun snap to Yates in the first half. UNC needs a running attack to keep opposing defenses honest or else it will continue to be open season on Yates and the passing game.
One more point. The cold, hard truth in this situation is despite how poorly Yates might play, he is really all the Heels have. This is where Butch Davis' handling of Cam Sexton comes under scrutiny since Sexton ultimately left because he felt slighted by the Tar Heel head coach. Of course I am not sure that would matter as much. Yes, Sexton would certainly be a better option than Mike Paulus or Braden Hansen at this point but I am not convinced the factors outlined above would not be even harder on Sexton than they presently are on Yates. I do know that turning to Paulus or Hansen is really not an choice Davis can make unless Yates declines further. At this point, Yates can still play his way out of this little slump he is in but it will improvement in every facet of the offense to make it happen. If those improvements come and Yates continues to make bad decisions, then putting someone else out there might be the only option Davis and John Shoop have left.