CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As North Carolina's record-setting quarterback stood in sweats and stared at a piece of paper with the day's spring practice plans on it, backups Mike Paulus and Cameron Sexton were in full gear, going through the drills on the sheet T.J. Yates was holding.
Yates, who had shoulder surgery on Dec. 17, will finally throw the football again on April 7.
Unfortunately for him, that's the last day of spring practice.
"The surgery has hurt him in that the opportunity to really grow and take advantage of all the things that he accomplished in the fall and now to see how far can he move the meter, obviously it's hurt him," UNC coach Butch Davis said, "but it's been a blessing for Cam and for Mike from the standpoint they're getting a lot more work than they would've gotten had he been there, even though we would have had good position competition."
The Tar Heels' depth at quarterback improved this spring at the expense of Yates, whose impressive first half of the season was overshadowed by the team's poor finish and his own downhill slide, part of which can be attributed to a previously undetected torn labrum. The question that remains is whether Yates' teammates improved enough to displace him. Yates -- who has had ample time to study the offense -- might have gotten better, too.
"Certainly when we hit the fall, those guys aren't going to want to take a backseat to T.J.," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Shoop. "Nobody's got tenure here, that's for sure."
And all of them have something to prove.
For Sexton, who lost his part-time starting job last season when Davis was hired, this spring was the start of redemption, to show what he could do after finally being in the same offense for two straight springs. For Paulus, the redshirt freshman who was ranked as the No. 15 QB in the class of 2007 by Scouts, Inc., it was a window to prove his decision-making skills can outweigh his inexperience. And Yates spent countless hours watching film and figuring out what else besides his shoulder caused him to throw six interceptions and three touchdowns in the final four games of the season.
All three of them believe they've got an equal opportunity to earn the starting job this fall.
"I think you have to go in with that mind-set whether you do or you don't," Paulus said. "We went 4-8. As far as I'm concerned, there should be no job that's not up for grabs, especially the quarterback position."
It's that attitude that has Yates a little concerned.
"There's only so much you can do on the sideline," he said. "Of course you get mental reps, but just getting that feel and work in the pocket is one thing I'm definitely going to have to jump back into really quick. They're definitely getting a little bit of an edge on me because they're out there throwing, they're working in the pocket, they're actually in the scrimmage."
If Davis named his starting quarterback based on study time and experience, Yates would be the front-runner. He threw 365 passes last season, and he has watched every single one of them on film. At least twice.
"Having an opportunity to look at himself on film for 300 passes or whatever it was, he'll be the first one to say, 'Gosh, what was I thinking then?'" Shoop said. "He's grown so much intellectually as a football player compared to where he was last year."
Yates lost some velocity on the ball in the latter half of the season, and a bit of his confidence went along with it. Still, he passed for a school-single-season-record 2,655 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman.
Which is why Sexton might have the most to prove. He is the oldest and has learned three different offenses since graduating high school early and arriving in December 2004.
First there was offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill. Then Frank Cignetti. And now Shoop.
Sexton, now a redshirt junior, has been there longer than any of them, but his success has been just as fleeting. He split starting time with Joe Dailey in 2006 and threw more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (four).
"I always have a little chip on my shoulder, and I always feel like I have something to prove," said Sexton, who began his career in 2005 with a broken foot and missed the season. "I felt like I had unfinished business. I tell people all the time, I'm either going to make it or I'm going to die trying, one way or the other. I'm not going to give up. I may be a lot of things, but I'm not going to quit."
He's not the only one. For Yates, practice has just begun.
Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.