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Poised Yates still a rookie, just not playing like one


Despite the heroics T.J. Yates has performed the past few weeks, signs remain that he's a rookie.

"He still has to bring us apple fritters on Friday," Texans quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp said.

Morning treats aside, Yates has borne little resemblance to a raw recruit since injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in back-to-back games thrust the rookie from North Carolina into the starting quarterback role.

"He's not playing like a rookie," rookie defensive end J.J. Watt said. "He's not playing like a third-stringer. He's an NFL starter. He's been phenomenal. When 70,000 people in your own stadium chant your name, I think he's doing all right."

Yates lived the life of an anonymous fifth-round draft pick for most of the season, making coffee runs and soaking up all he could learn. He was an afterthought to fans who had come to expect Schaub to come through any scrape unscratched.

Yates came on the radar screen as Leinart's backup when Schaub went down in Week 10 at Tampa Bay. Then Leinart lasted less than two quarters against Jacksonville, and suddenly the unknown scout teamer emerged. (Cue the "Rocky" theme music.)

"It's changed a lot, my role on the team, going from the scout team guy to the guy that's leading you down the field," Yates said. "It hasn't changed much in the locker room. It's definitely unfortunate circumstances for the two guys in front of me to go down. They were great players and leaders on this team as well, so we've done a great job dealing with it."

Yates settled in quickly and preserved the Texans' lead against Jacksonville for a 20-13 victory. He eased a lot of concerns by helping the Texans win 17-10 over Atlanta in his first-career start, with a steady performance that included his first NFL touchdown pass.

He topped that performance last Sunday against Cincinnati with two dramatic fourth-quarter drives, the second one an 80-yard march to a six-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds left in the game for a 20-19 victory.

He couldn't have done better tossing apple fritters.

Yates landed in a great spot with the Texans after an outstanding career with the Tar Heels. He found ready tutors in head coach Gary Kubiak, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and Knapp. It didn't hurt that the Texans' offense was similar to what Yates ran at North Carolina.

So, how does a scout team quarterback move so quickly into the spotlight? He stands on the sidelines and takes tests.

"What I do with the backups is try to get as many mental reps as I can," Knapp said. "As you see them in practice, they are quite often standing next to me. I am quizzing them as the quarterback goes to the line of scrimmage. I'll ask them, 'OK who's your hot read. What if they roll a Cover Two here?'

"I try to put them through the mental part of the rigors. It's obviously not as good as doing the rep itself, but at least they get a lot of mental reps as they are watching practice."

Yates answered the quizzes quickly.

"Like anybody in your profession, when you get a guy that's confident in what he knows, he usually can reply pretty quickly," Knapp said. "It showed in his knowledge of our scheme. He really studied. That makes you feel comfortable that he knows what he's doing."

With 12 players on injured reserve, the Texans have severely tested their "Next Man Up" motto. Yates has been among the most impressive successors to inured comrades.

Research by the Elias Sports Bureau says Yates is the first quarterback to lead game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in both of his first two starts since Jon Kitna did it for the Seahawks in 1997 and 1998. The last rookie quarterback to do so was Virgil Carter of the Bears in 1968.

Yates and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford are the only rookies in the last 10 years to throw a game-winning touchdown pass in the last 30 seconds of the fourth quarter. Stafford did so in a 38-37 victory over Cleveland in 2009.

It's been quite a ride so far, and Yates doesn't talk too long without mentioning his teammates.

"They're giving me a lot of confidence out there," Yates said. "Knowing that all those guys have my back out there just definitely calms me down in the huddle. Knowing that they know what they're doing and they're going to be there for me if I need them definitely gives me a lot of confidence, and it goes both ways."

Ah, but before we get too dreamy, Yates is the first to acknowledge he has a long way to go.

"I'm making mistakes every single week, but I'm learning from them every single week," Yates said. "Every game, I think I'm getting better, learning new things. Sometimes, the best teacher is getting the actual experience out there on the game field. Sometimes, there's some things you can't coach until you actually do them wrong."

Yates' thrilling 80-yard drive to victory last week at Cincinnati provided victory with two seconds left. That somewhat made up for a first half in which the Texans trailed 16-3 and Yates had several off-target passes.

"He had a couple of errant throws early, and what was nice to see was the STM (short-term memory)," Knapp said. "You've got to have STM in this business. There are going to be some bad throws in this game that you have to allow them to go by the wayside so the next series you're back on the field and not thinking about that.

"He's displayed that well."

Kubiak is proud of but not blinded by Yates' early success. This is still a work in progress.

"He had some decision-making issues that went on in the (Cincinnati) game," Kubiak said. "This team did blitz us quite a bit in the game, so he saw some things. He probably had a few balls he could have got rid of that he hung on to too long, but I did like the way he responded throughout the course of the game, the way he handled us on the road.

"He'll continue to improve and I just like the way he battled for his team, but there's a lot of things he can improve upon... How quick he grows up and how he progresses have a lot to do with how far we go."

Yates threw his first pro interception against the Bengals. After a lecture, Kubiak sent him right back into passing mode.

"We were backed up I think on our own 10, but that goes back to what I told you guys: I'm coaching this guy like he's a six-, seven-year player, because I think that's the only opportunity we have as a team if we approach it that way," Kubiak said.

"I had a good little talk with him after he threw the pick and he responded to me and continued to respond throughout the course of the game. Our players know, they're watching what's going on, they know that our expectations for him are big-time. We don't want him to go out there and survive the game, so to speak. We want him to go out there and play and lead us to victory, and he's done a good job."

Yates has received high marks in poise from the start, and it's helping him now that he's at the controls.

"He does display a lot of poise for a young quarterback," Knapp said. "I've been pleased with his demeanor because he's had some tough parts of the game that he's had to overcome with early turnovers and he's kept his poise and obviously he showed in his fourth-quarter performance last week."

Yates says he is more settled in his new role.

"I'm trying to finally get in a routine of getting back to playing again," he said. "It's definitely different. You got to take care of your body a little more. You get a little more sore after the games than when you're not playing. I'm definitely getting into kind of a rhythm as far as getting everything done that I need to during the week and prepare for the game."

And don't forget the fritters.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.

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