As a senior in high school, T.J. Yates came out of nowhere to earn a football scholarship.
As a senior in college, Yates has repeated the feat, coming seemingly out of nowhere to get his name into the NFL Draft discussion.
"You hope for it, but coming out of my junior season it didn't look very good," said Yates, a North Carolina quarterback who could hear his name called in the latter stages of the draft. "That kind of fueled me more in the offseason to work harder going into my senior year and make it a good one."
Yates entered his senior season in 2010 labeled as an inconsistent quarterback, having thrown nearly as many interceptions (37) as touchdowns (39) over his first three years as a starter. But even in the face of difficult circumstances that led to a different starting lineup around him virtually every Saturday, Yates became the first quarterback in school history to throw for more than 3,000 yards. He accomplished the feat efficiently, tossing 19 touchdowns versus nine interceptions while completing 66.8 percent of his passes.
"I'd challenge anybody to go look somewhere else for some worse adversity for a team because we had it from all angles as far as NCAA and academic stuff. And on top of that, we had a ton of injuries," Yates said. "From week to week, we had no idea who was going to be playing. We're waiting to get on the bus, and there would be a couple guys on the phone waiting to see if they could get on the bus. It was like that.
"But it was kind of a blessing in disguise for me, because my junior year our defense was so strong that the offense really didn't have to do much. We just had to control the ball, run the ball. If we got 14 points on the board we'd usually be good with a win, but this year was a completely different story. There were a lot of times when we had to go out and score 40-plus points to win the game. It made the offense as a whole step up, myself included."
Yates had experienced an unexpected dose of senior success before. Entering his final year at Pope High School in Marietta, Ga., he was an accomplished small forward on the basketball team who had received a couple of scholarship offers from some small schools.
His college plan, however, changed almost overnight when he decided to play high school football for the first time as a senior and quickly earned the starting quarterback job.
"One of the linebacker coaches at North Carolina at the time was at one of my high school games recruiting some linebackers on the other team, and it just happened that I had a really good game," Yates said. "They called me the next week and they offered me a scholarship."
Yates found sudden success at North Carolina as well, earning the starting job as a true freshman. With weapons that included future NFL receivers Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, Yates broke the school's single-season record for passing yards.
"To have those guys as a young quarterback kind of growing up was huge for me," Yates said. "Hakeem was my go-to guy, and you can't overthrow Brandon Tate.
"There wasn't much wrong I could do my freshman year."
Even more was expected from Yates as a sophomore after both Nicks and Tate decided to stay in school. He was more efficient than the previous, with just four interceptions versus the 18 he had tossed as a freshman, but a broken ankle cost him five games.
Nicks and Tate turned pro after the season, and Yates stayed healthy but couldn't stay consistent as a junior. He threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14) the second time in three seasons and ranked ninth in the 12-team ACC in pass efficiency.
But just like in high school, Yates saved his best for last, breaking his own school record for passing yards in 2010 and departing with 37 school records.
"My decision-making, that was a big factor," Yates said. "Our whole offense really grew. We had a lot of young guys my junior year, and then everybody had another year under their belts. We were just a more experienced and more talented group on offense.
"Throughout the season we had a lot of adversity, but we still managed to have a very good season."