Jordan Yates has a proud uncle in North Carolina great T.J. Yates

As T.J. Yates re-wrote sections of the North Carolina football record book as a four-year starter at quarterback, his biggest fan was his nephew, a curly-haired youngster named Jordan.

“He’s always just really looked up to T.J.,” Jordan’s mother Camille Grayson told the AJC. “Of course, he’s his uncle, but like a big brother.”

It was at least in part because T.J. played football and basketball at Pope High that Jordan took the same path, eventually picking his uncle’s position. And now, the nephew who grew up idolizing his uncle could be the starting quarterback against his uncle’s alma mater Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Georgia Tech takes on No. 21 North Carolina. (Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said Tuesday that, between Yates and Jeff Sims, he’ll play whichever gives the team the better chance to win.)

“He’s a good kid, and he’s been busting his (butt) for a long time to get in this spot, so I’m happy for him,” said T.J. Yates, now on the Falcons coaching staff as a passing-game specialist. “Our whole family is just beyond excited for his opportunity, and hopefully he takes full advantage of it.”

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The bond is close. For a short while when Jordan was born and T.J. was at Pope, they were even under the same roof. When T.J. went to North Carolina, where he started 2007-10 and set 37 school records, Jordan could often be found cheering for him at Kenan Stadium or watching him on TV, wearing T.J.’s No. 13 jersey, the number he eventually made his own.

“We’ve been with each other for a long time,” T.J. said. “I don’t really look at him as my nephew.”

The relationship took on a different depth in 2018, when Jordan was a senior at Milton High. It was the year between the end of T.J.’s seven-season NFL playing career and the start of his coaching career. With the free time, he poured himself into Jordan. Connecting through FaceTime, the two of them reviewed Milton’s practices and game video of the Eagles’ coming opponent. With Jordan at quarterback, Milton won the Class 7A state championship for the first time in school history, and Jordan was named the 7A offensive player of the year. Evan Yates, Jordan’s father and T.J.’s older brother, said that “I really think that helped Jordan’s mind just start thinking (about football) on a different level.”

“We worked very hand-in-hand basically his entire senior season, and I got to go to every single game, and I was kind of part of the whole process, which was really cool for me and cool for him, too,” T.J. said.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

The two continue to communicate daily.

“He’ll just shoot me a video he’s watching on his iPad and he’s got a question about something,” T.J. said. “Whether it’s a coverage or mechanics or footwork or anything really quarterback-related, he’ll always pick my brain on stuff. He’s like a sponge. He soaks up everything. He’s super, super smart.”

It’s not as easy for T.J. to watch Jordan’s games as it was when he was a senior at Milton, but being in the same city helps. T.J. was at Tech’s season opener with the Yates family, then watched the Kennesaw State and Clemson games on television. He’ll be in New York on Saturday when the Jackets and Tar Heels meet, as the Falcons will play the Giants on Sunday.

Speaking clinically, T.J. has been impressed by what he’s seen, particularly in the season opener, when he came in for Sims after his arm injury and played without significant mistakes.

“It was like he’s been doing it for a long time,” T.J. said. “There was no hesitation in his game. There was no extra hitches. There was no hesitation in general. He just went out there and played.”

As for Saturday’s game, there was a time when Yates would have envisioned himself on the other side. Yates visited North Carolina as a recruit, once with T.J., but the former coaching staff did not offer him a scholarship. Tar Heels offensive coordinator Phil Longo said this week that the present UNC coaching staff had interest in him in December 2018 as coach Mack Brown’s staff was taking shape, just as coach Geoff Collins was doing the same in Atlanta. North Carolina ultimately received a commitment from Sam Howell, now the Tar Heels’ star quarterback. Jordan stuck by his commitment to Tech.

Evan Yates said that Jordan won’t play with a vendetta against North Carolina.

“It’s totally not that vibe,” he said. “I think he’s just excited to see those jerseys across from him. Because he knows a lot about that program.”

As for T.J. and his rooting interest Saturday, he said he would be happy to see either team win, but admitted he’d like for Jordan to get a win, particularly after the Jackets’ near upset of Clemson.

“They were so close,” T.J. said. “I thought he and the team played really good, but they just need to break through and get a win and get back on the right side of things. There’s going to be a lot of Carolina people that’ll probably hate me if I say that, but blood’s a little deeper right now.”