By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On one sideline at Scott Stadium, defensive coordinator Jim Reid and other assistant coaches oversaw the Orange team. On the opposite sideline, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and other assistants directed the Blue team.
UVa’s head football coach spent most of the spring game on the field, positioned about 15 yards behind the offense.
“I was watching to see who had the big eyes,” Mike London said Saturday afternoon after a scrimmage that the Blue team won 17-7.
“Sometimes you get out there and you get that deer-in-the-headlight look. I wanted to see if the quarterbacks were taking command of the huddle. I wanted to see if anyone was in there that was vocal and was expressing, ‘Hey, we gotta pick it up.’ And I like to see that because sometimes when you’re on the sideline, you don’t get to hear that chatter, you don’t get to see whether there’s composure, you don’t get to see whether someone’s rattled.”
At one point, after David Watford, who four months ago was a senior at Hampton High School, was penalized for delay of game, London reminded the young quarterback to check the 40-second clock.
“And that’ll come,” London said. “It’s a learning process.”
By the end of the spring game, the sun was shining brightly, and the air was still. Earlier in the afternoon, though, rain and hail had pounded Charlottesville, and cold winds had chilled spectactors at Scott Stadium.
“I think we’ve had all four seasons today,” said Evan Marcus, Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football.
More than 10,000 fans showed up for the men’s lacrosse game that preceded the football scrimmage. The crowd was smaller for the spring game, in large part because Mother Nature intervened.
London said he saw hail “the size of ice cubes, and I’m quite sure that a lot of people thought that maybe the weather would be an issue and sought safety and shelter and perhaps headed home. It is what it is. You can’t control the weather. Whether it’s hot-hot or cold or raining, you just gotta play football.”
The Orange squad included the first-team defense. On the Blue side were most members of the first-team offense. The scrimmage started with sophomore Michael Rocco at quarterback for the Blue, but he later took snaps for the Orange, as did Watford, sophomore Ross Metheny and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss.
The Blue team used three quarterbacks: Rocco, Metheny and Watford.
“It’s easy to evaluate a guy that plays behind the first O-line all the time,” London said. “I wanted to make sure that guys had to react to penetration, guys coming off the edge, playing against [all-ACC cornerback] Chase Minnifield and those guys in the secondary. So I tried to even the playing field as much as possible, and then base the evaluation off of that.”
Rocco threw two touchdown passes, one for each team. He finished 17 of 32 passing for 152 yards, with one interception. Metheny was 3 for 6 for 60 yards, with one interception. Strauss completed 6 of 14 passes for 85 yards, but he also threw an interception that senior cornerback Dom Joseph returned 65 yards for a TD.
Watford was 1 for 5 passing for 6 yards.
“Young David Watford,” London said, was “young David Watford. But he’s going to be good. He’s going to be good. And I know everyone wants him to be real good right now, real fast, but that was his, what, 10th college practice?”
In the second quarter, Rocco tossed a short pass to junior tailback Perry Jones, who turned it into a 15-scoring TD play. In the fourth, Rocco passed to walk-on wideout Brendan Morgan, who was alone in the back of the end zone, for a 3-yard score.
Joseph’s interception return came in the third quarter. Senior Robert Randolph closed out the scoring with a 40-yard field goal in the scrimmage’s final minute.
Asked about Rocco’s play, London said, “I thought Mike did OK. I’m looking for a guy to have command of the huddle, to have a presence about him. In a situation like this, when it’s open, when it’s competitive, guys have to step up and step forward for that. He’s moving in that direction. That’s what I can say. Ross is moving in that direction.
“Michael Strauss, he’ll throw the ball deep. He’s one of those guys that’s a gunslinger. He’ll take his chances and throw the ball deep down there, which is an admirable quality. But at the same time you gotta make sure that if your [second target] is wide open, go ahead and take that and line up to get another down.”
Spring practice ends next weekend, after which the coaching staff hopes to settle on the top two quarterbacks.
“I’d hate to speak too soon until I’ve had a chance to watch [videotape of the spring game],” Lazor said, but the quarterbacks “are starting to [create separation]. You’d always like to have it happen faster than it is, so we’re working on it. They’re working on it.”
The game’s opening series ended with a Rocco pass that Minnifield intercepted, and the defense got its hands on other Rocco throws.
“But at the same time he also had some production getting the ball to the end zone,” Lazor said.
Asked if the starting job was Rocco’s to lose coming into the spring, Lazor said, “I definitely would not use the word ‘incumbent’ [to describe Rocco], and I think they know that. I wouldn’t put it that way. I’m not trying to hide anything, I promise you. I think I’ve been honest with you guys always, and I’m not trying to hide anything. I think the fair thing for them as long as it’s still close, I might have feelings or inklings, but the fair thing to do is let them decide and not have me decide. By their play, let them decide.
“There are days when Ross Metheny’s had the best day of anyone in practice this spring, and he’s known that, and I’ve told him that, and it’s been recent. I think Ross is making a push right now. I think today is a big day to evaluate on video, because they were out there by themselves and had to run the huddle. I think as a group of quarterbacks, we weren’t sharp enough getting out of the huddle. We weren’t fast enough. We weren’t playing at the pace that the Virginia Cavaliers are going to play … That was one thing that the quarterbacks can help us with. I think all of them probably need help with that. Probably David the most, because as a freshman, he got a delay-of-game penalty, which we don’t like getting. We like not even being close to that clock. So we’ve got a ways to go. But when you’re a freshman [who] really should be a high school senior still, you know, it was a good first day of learning for him.”
Injuries kept the Cavaliers’ top three wideouts — Kris Burd, Tim Smith and Matt Snyder — out of the spring game, which made it more difficult for the coaching staff to evaluate the quarterbacks.
“There’s a thing called timing,” London said. “You get used to that, and it’s a very important element of your quarterback and wide receiver play. The receivers that we have, look, they’re doing the best they can to run the routes. There’s a difference in skill level a little bit, but as I said, if a guy’s open, regardless of all that other stuff I just talked about, throw the ball to the guy so he can catch it.”
Virginia’s coaches — and fans — came away encouraged with the play of the defense, the team’s weak point in 2010. The first-team defense recorded 10 tackles for loss Saturday, including five sacks. The reserves totaled nine tackles for loss, including three sacks.
Last season was London’s first as UVa’s head coach, and he installed the 4-3 defense, a dramatic change from the 3-4 that his predecessor, Al Groh, had favored for the previous nine years.
Defensive coordinator Jim “Reid and the defensive coaches have done a nice job so far this spring in implementing some more aggressiveness,” London said. “As you saw out there today, we did a good job versus the run, put some pressure on the quarterback. We’re lights years ahead of where we were before we first started out.”
BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE: A sack was awarded Saturday when a defensive player got his hands on the quarterback. In an actual game, the quarterback might have escaped some of those “sacks,” so it’s not wise to assign too much significance to the final stats.
Still, junior Billy Schautz clearly played well. The 6-4, 255-pound defensive end was credited with three sacks, and he combined on another tackle for loss.
With senior end Cam Johnson, an all-ACC candidate, recovering from shoulder surgery, Schautz has been with the first team all spring.
“Coach has given me a lot of chances, and I’ve tried to capitalize on it,” Schautz said. “Everything I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to do to the best of my ability.
“I’ve been taking a lot of tips from Cam … Him helping me out a lot has improved my game, and I really appreciate that.”
London said: “I think Billy made a big step forward [Saturday], because he was going against [offensive tackles] Morgan Moses and Sean Cascarano and guys that have played in games.”
Schautz, a heralded recruit when he entered UVa, was an outside linebacker in Groh’s 3-4 defense. When the Cavaliers switched to the 4-3, he worked initially at outside linebacker before shifting to end.
“I’ve been moved around a lot here,” Schautz said, “but I think I found my spot finally. It’s actually very similar to the outside linebacker position in the 3-4. The only major difference is that my hand is down now.”
So, how about those three sacks?
“Usually during spring practice, all spring practices, they don’t even let us touch the quarterbacks,” Schautz said with a smile. “Today they allowed us to at least wrap them up. I’m pretty confident on all those I would have brought him down, but you never know, I guess.”
SUCCESS STORY: Matt Snyder was on crutches and couldn’t play in the spring game, but it was a memorable day nonetheless for the senior wide receiver.
Snyder was named one of the Cavaliers’ four team captains, along with Perry Jones, senior defensive tackle Nick Jenkins and senior safety Rodney McLeod.
Not bad for a player who joined the program as a walk-on in 2007 and didn’t appear in a game until 2009.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Snyder, whose younger brother Jake is a candidate to start at defensive end for the Wahoos.
“You look at the guys in the past who have been captains, and you look at the guys on our team right now that are also deserving to be a captain. I’m just honored and blessed to be that.”
Matt Snyder also received the team’s Iron Cavalier award for his performance and dedication in the weight room.
ON-THE-JOB TRAINING: Watford, who enrolled at UVa in January, said he enjoyed his first spring game.
“It went by fast, but I was just trying to have fun out here and stay relaxed, stay calm,” Watford said, “just lead the team and try to make plays out there. I felt pretty good about my play out here on the field, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Trying to command the huddle, Watford said, is “a daunting thing where you have a freshman coming in and trying to be a quarterback, at 17 [years old]. You’re supposed to be in high school right now, and you’re playing with offensive linemen that are like 6-5, 6-6.
“You’re looking up at them in the huddle. You have all these older players around you. You try to lead them, but it’s like, ‘How am I going to be a leader?’ They’ve just got to believe in me. I tried to do the best I could while I was out here.”