By Jeff White
PINEHURST, N.C. — In Mike London’s two seasons as head football coach at the University of Richmond, quarterback was the least of his concerns. Eric Ward led the Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision national title as a junior in 2008 and graduated as a four-year starter.
“Life is easier” when there’s a clear No. 1 at QB, London acknowledged Monday night. “But at the same time, as I’ve said, we are where we are at this point of the program.”
London, who had two stints as a UVa assistant under Al Groh, returned to Charlottesville as head coach after the 2009 season. He took over a struggling program with only one quarterback, Marc Verica, who had taken a snap in a college game. Verica started every game for the Cavaliers in 2010, but he’s out of eligibility, and the identity of his successor has yet to be determined.
The candidates, as Virginia fans know, are sophomores Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny, redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford. Nobody has to tell London — or the rest of the team — how important this battle will be.
“College football, it’s all about the quarterback now,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said Sunday at Pinehurst Resort, where it was London’s turn to field questions Monday.
“How can the quarterback do? Can he control the ball? Can he keep possession? Can he make the play? Can he keep his composure?” said Burd, who led the Wahoos with 58 receptions last season. “There’s a lot of weight and a lot of added pressure at the quarterback position, and the guy this year is going to be somebody who hasn’t been the guy. That’s going to be a tough role to step into.”
A year ago, Verica completed 233 of 396 passes (58.8 percent) for 2,799 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he also threw 14 interceptions.
“Those are pretty decent numbers, outside of the interceptions,” London told reporters Monday night at ACC Football Kickoff.
Virginia opens Sept. 3 against FCS power William and Mary at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers’ coaching staff — other than strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus — has not been able to work with the quarterbacks since spring practice ended in April. Training camp starts Aug. 5, and the coaches will “be able to hopefully tell early on where these guys are and how far they’ve either moved ahead, stayed the same or taken a step backwards,” London said.
In seven-on-seven drills organized by the players, Metheny, Rocco, Strauss and Watford have rotated at quarterback. All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield said he’s seen little separation among them.
“They all bring different qualities, but they’re all pretty much the same,” Minnifield said Sunday. “I think anybody can win the job, and we’ll be OK. But as far as leadership, that’s what I really want to see.”
Minnifield said he’s waiting for one of the quarterbacks to “step up and tell somebody like Kris Burd that he’s running the wrong route or he’s at the wrong distance. When somebody does that is when I’ll know that somebody is ready to be the leader of this team.”
So far, Minnifield said, all four have been “pretty quiet … They don’t want to take too much control right now.” He paused, then added with a smile: “But before the first game, they better start taking some control.”
In 2006, when London was UVa’s defensive coordinator, Groh tried Christian Olsen and then Kevin McCabe at quarterback before turning to Jameel Sewell, a redshirt freshman who started the final nine games of the season.
“I break out in hives right now when you’re saying that,” London said with a smile Monday night. “Thanks for reminding me of that. I remember that. We’re not going to do that, that’s for sure.”
Ideally, London has said, he and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will be able to settle on a rotation a couple of weeks into training camp.
“You don’t want it to carry on and linger, because you can’t give four guys or three guys the reps to try to find out who No. 1 is,” London said. “We’re going to find out early who 1 and 2 are, and 3 will be a guy that’ll probably be the scout-team quarterback.”
Rocco and Metheny know “this is not going to be a long, drawn-out process,” London said. “It can’t be a long, drawn-out process.”
If the quarterbacks remain unproven, London loves the talent level elsewhere on his offense, starting with a line that includes Oday Aboushi, Morgan Moses, Austin Pasztor and Anthony Mihota.
If fullback Max Milien can provide some of the power running that the Cavaliers got from 6-3, 255-pound tailback Keith Payne in 2010, London believes, the offense will be more talented overall at the positions around the quarterback than it was a year ago.
The weapons from which Lazor can choose will include Milien, tailbacks Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, tight ends Colter Phillips, Paul Freedman and Jeremiah Mathis, returning wideouts Burd, Matt Snyder and Tim Smith and, perhaps, true freshman wideouts Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings.
“I expect us to be a very productive group,” Burd said of the receivers.
Rocco appeared in six games and Metheny in five last season. Strauss, who entered UVa in January 2010, redshirted, and Watford was still at Hampton High School. (Watford enrolled at Virginia in January.]
Given that, the development of Strauss and Watford “from an on-the-field standpoint probably is going to be behind [that of Rocco and Metheny] a little bit,” London said. “But there’s something about each one of those guys. Michael Strauss has a cannon for an arm. He’ll throw the ball and say, ‘I can get it there.’ Now, that’s a good thing. The bad thing is, he’ll throw the ball and say, ‘I can get it there,’ and he’s not supposed to.
“David Watford is probably as athletic as I’ve seen, but [he’s still] learning to read the defenses and do the other things that quarterbacks have to do. It’ll come, but when is it going to come? When is the light going to come on? It turned on for him academically … but now the football part of it, when is that going to come?”
Rocco, whose extended family includes several football coaches, is probably the most fundamentally sound of UVa’s quarterbacks. But he can be methodical to a fault.
Sometimes, London said, when the pocket collapses and receivers are covered, a quarterback cannot afford to go through all of his progressions. “Sometimes, you gotta get the heck out of Dodge,” he said. “It’s that innate thing about just having a sense and a presence about you, that although it calls for [progressing from] 1 to 2 to 3, I gotta go.”
Metheny is more willing to take off and run, but there are things he doesn’t do as well as Rocco.
“You wish one guy had more of this or more of that,” London said. Still, he believes his team can win with the QBs in the program.
“The surrounding cast has a chance to make the quarterback perform in an efficient manner where you don’t have to rely on the quarterback to win games for you,” London said.
The ‘Hoos have not won more than five games in a season since 2007, when they went 9-4 and played in the Gator Bowl. In their annual preseason poll, media members attending ACC Football Kickoff picked UVa to finish fifth in the six-team Coastal Division, ahead of only Duke.
“I don’t even look at them,” London said of the preseason polls. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you end, and that’s kind of the mentality. The last season is over. Whatever happened before, that was then, this is now.”
Fifth-year seniors Burd and Minnifield talked Sunday about how they desperately want to play in a bowl before leaving UVa. Such goals are fine with their head coach.
“There’s been enough losing going around here for a while,” London said. “It’s time to change the thought process.”