Yates, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011, was an afterthought on Houston's roster until season-ending injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart thrust him into the starting role. The former North Carolina star promptly guided the Texans to victories in his first two starts, including a division-clinching win at Cincinnati.
Two weeks into training camp, Schaub is healthy again and Yates is content to be back in a reserve spot for Houston (No. 6 in the AP Pro32). The Texans open the preseason at Carolina (No. 20) on Saturday.
"It's a little bit of a different role," Yates said, "but that doesn't mean I can slough off, or take anything for granted. I've got to work as hard as the next guy, because as last year taught everybody, you've always got to be ready."
Schaub broke his right foot in Week 10, and Leinart broke his collarbone in the first half against Jacksonville in Week 12. Yates went 8-for-15 for 70 yards against the Jaguars, guiding the Texans to a 20-13 victory.
"You can tell in the huddle, you can tell right away if a guy's ready or not," said Walter, Houston's third-leading receiver last year. "He wasn't nervous at all. He came in, gave us the play and said, `Let's go. Let's do this."'
Yates threw his first career touchdown pass against Atlanta in his first start, then broke out in Cincinnati, the following week, completing 26 of 44 passes for 300 yards. He engineered two long fourth-quarter drives, and capped a Houston rally with a 6-yard TD pass to Walter in the closing seconds, clinching the Texans' first division title.
Houston coach Gary Kubiak never scaled back the complicated offense, and Walter said that equipped Yates to handle the pressure of a real game immediately.
"He went out there and played like he'd been playing in this league for five or six years," Walter said. "But if you play quarterback for this organization, coach is going to have you right. He coaches them harder than he coaches anybody else, and he really got T.J. going."
The Texans also made a smart move by bringing in veterans Jeff Garcia and Jake Delhomme late in the year to help mentor Yates. He struggled late in the season, but threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson in Houston's playoff rout of Cincinnati.
Houston is considered a Super Bowl contender this season, and Kubiak is comfortable knowing that his backup quarterback already has some valuable experience in pressure-packed games. He'll also benefit from a full training camp this year -- the lockout took away that opportunity last year.
"He's a very young player. He continues to get better," Kubiak said. "He goes against our first defense a lot because we do it that way. He's got a lot of ability. He knows exactly what he's doing, so now it's just a matter of competing."
Yates spent much of this offseason poring over video of his own performances, and he gleaned plenty of areas where he can improve. He threw three interceptions to go along with three TD passes and was also sacked 15 times in six games.
"I've made plays out here, big plays down the field," Yates said after a morning workout this week. "But it's more about being consistent, being pinpoint accurate on just every single throw, so you can get guys in good position to catch and run."
Yates seems to have already proven himself to his teammates, who've noticed a higher level of confidence and maturity in training camp.
"He did an excellent job for us last year, and I think he'd be a different player if he hadn't gotten that experience," tight end Owen Daniels said. "He's got a little bit more of an open mind about being a leader. Obviously, that's what quarterbacks need to be, but I don't think there's that hesitation there, that you might find from a second-year player."
Notes: LB Brian Cushing was released from a hospital Thursday morning after treatment for an illness. Kubiak is hoping Cushing will feel well enough to play Saturday. ... TE Owen Daniels and NT Shaun Cody sat out the Thursday morning workout for rest. ... Kubiak says he'll play QB John Beck ahead of QB Case Keenum on Saturday, but may reverse the order for Houston's second preseason game. Beck and Keenum are competing for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, behind Schaub and Yates. ... The Texans signed LB Omar Gaither. The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Gaither was a fifth-round pick by Philadelphia in 2006.