By Jeff White
GREENSBORO, N.C. — During the 75 minutes he spent with print reporters Sunday afternoon at the Grandover Resort, Marc Verica was in high spirits, and who could blame him?
His football fortunes have improved dramatically since last season, which Verica began as UVa’s No. 3 quarterback and ended as a virtual afterthought to the coaching staff. He didn’t play in the Cavaliers’ final three games and, had Al Groh been retained, probably would not have had a prominent role this season.
But Groh is no longer coach at his alma mater — he’s the new defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech — and Mike London has taken his place in Charlottesville. And Verica?
He’s a team captain who’ll be the Wahoos’ No. 1 quarterback when practice starts Aug. 6.
“It’s amazing,” Verica, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in economics, said at ACC Football Kickoff.
“There’s a lot of highs and lows involved in that. You’ve really just got to stick it out. There’s going to be adversity in anything you do. Whether you’re playing sports in college or you’re a student or you’re at a new job, you’re in a new relationship, there’s going to be adversity. You’ve got to fight through it, and that was always my focus during those hard times. Not to get scared and run away but to stand your ground and push through it, and maybe eventually it’ll pay off. So now I find myself heading into my final year as a leader on this team and the quarterback. I’m embracing that. I’m having a great time, and I’m having fun with it.”
As a redshirt sophomore in 2008, Verica started nine games, and during one stretch he threw for least 200 yards in six straight games. But he slumped late in the season and ended on a dismal note, throwing a costly fourth-quarter interception in UVa’s 17-14 loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
The next month, Groh hired an offensive coordinator, Gregg Brandon, who installed a spread scheme for which Verica wasn’t particularly well-suited.
He’s a much better fit, the 6-3, 215-pound right-hander said, in the pro-style offense favored by Bill Lazor, Brandon’s successor.
“I definitely feel more comfortable in this offense than I did in last year’s offense,” Verica said. “This offense is predicated on making good pre-snap decisions and making checks at the line. There’s just a definite progression for everything. Coach Lazor’s very demanding in what he’s asking you, but he’s making it very clear as to what your responsibilities are. You know exactly what your footwork is, you know exactly what your progression is, so you know exactly what your execution is.”
Under the new coaching staff, Verica said, “I just think we’re a little more focused on details and the little things this year. There are so many little intricacies and nuances of the game, and those things have to be taught, and you have to refine those skills. You can’t just be fast or strong. You gotta understand how to play the game and how to run routes and how to make the correct blocks.”
Lazor, who spent the past seven seasons as an NFL assistant, is also Virginia’s quarterbacks coach, and he and Verica have formed a strong bond.
“He has a tremendous temperament to coach the position,” Verica said. “He’s such an even-keeled guy. He doesn’t really get too crazy or too excited about everything. He’s very calculated and meticulous in his approach to everything. He’s very demanding, but he’s very clear in what’s expected of you.”
At this time last year, Verica was preparing to battle Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell in training camp for the starting job. All three ended up playing in Virginia’s opener, a stunning loss to William and Mary.
“There was a lack of consistency or a foundation [at QB in 2009],” Verica said. “The team really wasn’t sure who the guy was, and the quarterbacks, we weren’t really sure. But that was just the kind of role we had to embrace. That’s what was being preached to us, and we had to buy into it. We just had to be selfless guys, so whenever we were called up, we had to be ready. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work, but this is a new season now.”
There’s clarity on the depth chart this year, and Verica believes that will pay dividends.
“It makes a big difference when you’re going into the season and you know that your teammates and your coaches [are supportive] and they’re encouraging you and they trust you,” Verica said. “So you’re not looking over your shoulder.
“That’s not the best environment. It’s not completely conducive to guys playing at their best if they’re always looking over their shoulder and they’re tense. So it’ll be good to just kind of have that free out of my mind.”
The watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award, presented each year to the top quarterback in college football, was released recently, and five of the 30 preseason candidates are from the ACC.
Verica was not among them. No surprise there. As a Cavalier, he’s thrown 17 interceptions and only 8 touchdown passes. But he completed 63.8 percent of his attempts in 2008, and he’s the only quarterback in the program who’s taken a snap in a college game.
If the ‘Hoos are to avoid a third straight losing season, they’ll have to get solid play behind center. Verica is the quarterback most likely to supply that, at least early in the season.
“He’s matured a lot, and I think that’s just come over the years,” said cornerback Ras-I Dowling, another of the Cavaliers’ captains. “He’s leading the team in a great way. He’s a great leader.”
Verica said: “I consider myself an ambassador for UVa and for the team and for my family. Whenever I get the chance to come to a media event like this or I’m working within the community or doing anything, I’m doing my best to represent what Coach London is trying to establish.”
Virginia’s two-deep is dominated by underclassmen who will be back in 2011. For Verica and the other seniors, this is it — the final chance to make a positive impact on a program that’s trying to become relevant again in the ACC.
“I would like my legacy to be just a guy who was considered a great teammate and a great guy to coach,” Verica said, “just a selfless guy who did anything he could to help the team. And I’d like this team to be remembered as being that first team that kind of got the ball rolling for Coach London and his new staff.
“We’re definitely look forward to this season, and we’re really hungry. We want to get this off on the right track.”
DEPARTURE: London said Sunday night that safety Corey Lillard has left the football program and may transfer to another school.
Lillard is a graduate of Liberty High in Bealeton. As a true freshman last season, he appeared in three games. Lillard was in for a total of 10 plays, all on special teams.
Other members of UVa’s 2009 team who had eligibility remaining but, for various reasons, are no longer in the program include Javanti Sparrow, Lamar Milstead, Javaris Brown, Riko Smalls, Tory Allen-Ford and Quintin Hunter. Sparrow hopes to rejoin the team in 2011.
ON THE MOVE AGAIN: Quarterback Peter Lalich, who was dismissed from the team at UVa in September 2008 and later ran into trouble at Oregon State, has landed at California University of Pennsylvania.
That’s the Division II power for which another former UVa quarterback, Kevin McCabe, starred in 2008.
In Greensboro on Sunday afternoon, Verica was asked about Lalich.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Verica, who became UVa’s starter after Lalich, then a sophomore, was booted off the team.
“You hate to see guys you know and friends or former teammates get into trouble and stuff like that. It sounds clichéd, but I just hope he can learn from it in some way. He’s gotta find, I guess, what makes him happy. I wish him the best of luck.”
Verica said he and Lalich were good friends at UVa and still contact each other periodically.
“He was such a young kid when he was here,” Verica said. “He definitely had a ton of ability. He had a good arm, he had a good mind for the game. There’s no questioning his talent. Hopefully he’s able to put together a successful season [at California University].”
POINT OF EMPHASIS: The Cavaliers finished 5-7 in 2008 and 3-9 last year. Not coincidentally, perhaps, in 2008 they ranked 108th out of the 119 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing offense.
In 2009, UVa ranked 112th out of 120 teams nationally in that category.
Lazor will be disappointed if the ‘Hoos can’t move the ball on the ground this season, and so will his players.
“You have to have a strong running game,” Verica said. “There has to be that balance. If we’re not able to run the ball and win the game at the line of scrimmage, times will be tough. But we understand that. We’ve been focused on being physical and being the first aggressor at the line of scrimmage and moving guys out of the way so we can run the ball.
“On third-and-1, you have to be able to be able to get that yard running the ball.”
MAN OF MANY TALENTS: Verica, an accomplished musician who plays the guitar and piano, is also one of the best dancers on the team. Or so he told reporters Sunday in Greensboro.
Verica is one of five UVa football players — the others are defensive tackle John-Kevin Dolce, defensive backs Trey Womack and Devin Wallace, and linebacker Darnell Carter — taking a summer-school class on the social impact of dance.
“It’s not just two hours nonstop of us just cutting it loose,” Verica said with a smile. “It’s a lot of learning the history of dance and about dance as a propaganda tool.”
Verica said he dances “all the time in the locker room” and acquits himself well. The best dancer in the group, though, is probably Dolce, Verica said. “He’s pretty talented. I’d go with him.”