Aug. 13, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After being named UVa’s football coach in early December, Mike London was bombarded with congratulatory e-mails, phone calls and texts.

One such message came from former colleague Danny Rocco, Liberty University’s coach. Congrats and good luck, Rocco told London, and if you’re interested in my nephew, let me know.

Liberty Christian Academy quarterback Michael Rocco, whose father, Frank, is Danny’s brother, was committed to Louisville at the time. But the Big East school was going through a coaching change, too, and Danny knew that his nephew — and the Cardinals — might want to explore other options.

London didn’t hesitate. Not long after starting at UVa, he drove to Lynchburg and visited LCA, where Michael was a senior, and told him, in effect, “Hey, we’re really interested. If you find out that Louisville is not for you, let us know,” said Danny Rocco, a former UVa assistant.

In the end, of course, Michael Rocco decommitted from Louisville — whose new coaching staff, including former UVa assistant Mike Groh, seemed more interested in other quarterbacks — and signed with Virginia in February.

London’s decision to pursue Rocco is looking better every day. One week into his first training camp, the 6-3 210-pounder is probably generating as much buzz as any member of the first-year class.

Quarterback is a position where, to be successful, “there’s got to be something about you, that ‘it factor,’ ” London said, and that’s something Rocco appears to possess.

“He’s very poised, very mature for his age,” London said. “So far he’s doing a nice job.”

Rocco’s uncle isn’t surprised.

“I’ve watched Mike play for a long time,” Danny Rocco said. “I kind of made a decision in my mind, when Mike was in ninth grade, that he was a Division I quarterback. You kind of see certain things in his physicality, you see certain things in his release and his arm strength and his poise and presence.

“The ones that can do it, they conduct themselves as if they can do it, and he’s been conducting himself that way for a long time.”

Michael Rocco is no worse than No. 4 on the Wahoos’ depth chart at quarterback and could well rise to No. 3 by the time the season starts. The starter, fifth-year senior Marc Verica, is the only quarterback in the program who has taken a snap in a college game, so Rocco walked into a good situation. He’s made the most of it.

“There’s a certain level of him being lost, because it’s new to him, but you can tell he’s a coach’s kid,” London said before a recent practice. “He’s been a quarterback from a pretty athletic family, and just having been around football so long has benefited him.

“He’s picked up things easily, and he understands the game. It’s a benefit that he’s been around football for so long. It’s kind of made him a little bit more polished.”

Michael’s grandfather, Frank Rocco Sr., is a former Penn State assistant coach. Michael’s father, Frank Rocco Jr., played quarterback for Joe Paterno at Penn State and now coaches the powerful program at LCA. Danny Rocco, who played at Penn State and Wake Forest, is 32-13 as Liberty’s head coach. Michael’s brother, Chris, was an all-Big South safety for their Uncle Danny at Liberty.

“It’s awesome,” Michael said of growing up in a football family. “I call my dad basically every night and we just talk about what’s going on and what I did right, what I did wrong, and how I can improve. It’s like having a second coach in the back of my mind.

“My uncle, too, he’s been a great mentor in the whole process of coming to UVa. It’s just a good feeling to know that you have two very smart football minds in the family, and you can call them or text them whenever you want advice or anything.”

Michael didn’t start playing organized football until he was about 12 or 13, but he’s been around the game his whole life, watching his father and his uncle at practice and in games, learning from their players, soaking in the fundamentals.

Danny Rocco was a UVa assistant for five seasons before taking the Liberty job in December 2005. During those seasons, Michael Rocco was a regular at Scott Stadium.

“I came to about four to six games a year,” he said. “I was up here, I knew the program, I knew the facilities and everything. The past couple years, when [Danny Rocco] hasn’t been here, I didn’t come to as many games. I only came to a couple. But I feel like it’s home now.”

Rocco, a right-hander, missed the early part of his senior season with a broken left arm and dislocated left wrist. He also starred at safety at LCA, and on UVa’s preseason roster Rocco’s position is listed as quarterback/athlete.

But there’s no talk of moving him to defense now. Rocco has been a quick study in new coordinator Bill Lazor’s pro-style offense, as his uncle would have predicted.

“He’s been very well-coached down here at LCA,” Danny Rocco said. “Frank and his staff have brought him along in a system that has taught him how to see, read and decide. Mike’s right where he needs to be.”

Michael Rocco said: “This is the perfect place for me: the offense, the coaching staff, Coach London, Coach Lazor. I couldn’t ask for a better place to come — in-state, close to home. It’s a perfect fit.”

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