alumnus T.J. Yates suddenly finds himself as the starting quarterback for an NFL team that expects to be in the playoffs.
And his first start looks as if it will come next Sunday at home against his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons.
Yates took over the Houston Texans’ offense Sunday afternoon when Matt Leinart was knocked out of the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars with an injury to his throwing shoulder late in the first half.
Two weeks ago the East Cobb product was a third-string rookie quarterback for the Texans, learning the system and remaining inactive each week as the Texans (8-3) grabbed control of the AFC South behind former Falcon Matt Schaub.
Yates, 24, joined the Texans as a in the spring after starting 44 games at the University of North Carolina.
“He’s very much into the game. He has a natural trait to be able to get rid of the ball pretty fast in the pocket and sees the field well,” the Texans’ quarterbacks coach, Greg Knapp, said in a podcast posted on the team website Thanksgiving week. “So far he’s shown us the right things you want to see from a rookie quarterback. All he lacks is the playing experience.”
When Schaub suffered a season-ending injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 13, Yates was elevated to second string behind 2006 first-round draft pick Leinart.
“As the season has progressed, you can see him growing with confidence, a feeling of acceptance that he deserves to be here,” Knapp said in the podcast. “It’s still an unknown factor for us at what level can he play when he becomes a starter, but obviously with a rookie you’re always going to have some growing pains.”
The growing pains showed Sunday.
Yates entered the game with 1:41 to play in the first half and the Texans facing second and 10 at their 45-yard line while leading 17-10 on the road, according to the official NFL gamebook.
Yates completed three passes for 39 yards to lead the Texans to a field goal on the final play of the half. But he also fumbled a shotgun snap and was flagged for intentional grounding when the Texans had first and goal at the Jaguar 6-yard line.
For the game, Yates completed eight of 15 passes for 70 yards with no turnovers and no touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 66. He also ran the ball four times for a net loss of 3 yards.
He and the Texans got the ball eight times in the second half and punted seven times; the eighth possession ended with the clock running out. The longest Houston drive of the second half was four plays and 17 yards. But the Texans won, 20-13.
SB Nation Houston said Yates’ job Sunday was to make easy passes, hand the ball off to the Texans’ running backs and don’t make any turnovers: “Check. Check. Check.”
The Chronicle also reported the panic among the radio crew at the Texans’ flagship station, KILT-AM (610), leading to speculation about calling a certain future Hall of Famer who appears to be retired in southern Mississippi.
But radio analyst and former NFL player N.D. Kalu endorsed Yates: “I don’t think that Brett Favre, Jeff Garcia, Daunte Culpepper is going to add more than T.J. Yates. … When it comes to it, T.J. Yates is ready to roll.”
If the Houston coaches agree with that assessment, Yates will start next Sunday at home against the Falcons (7-4). The Texans have a two-game lead in the AFC South over the Tennessee Titans are tied for the best record in their conference; the Falcons are chasing the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
The game is scheduled to air at 1 p.m. on Fox 5 in Atlanta, so everyone in East Cobb can watch Yates play.