By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny were among the first players on the practice field Monday afternoon, and they loosened up by tossing a football back and forth. About 10 minutes later, UVa’s other two quarterbacks, David Watford and Michael Strauss, emerged from the locker room and began warming up next to Rocco and Metheny.
Then the horn sounded to signal the start of practice, and the new depth chart at quarterback became clear. Rocco, a 6-3, 225-pound sophomore from Lynchburg, took the field with the first-team offense. When it was time for the No. 2 quarterback to get some work, Watford, a 6-1, 190-pound true freshman from Hampton, replaced Rocco.
Metheny, a redshirt sophomore, and Strauss, a redshirt freshman, took some snaps Monday as well, but most went to Rocco and Watford. And that probably will continue to be the case as Virginia moves closer to its Sept. 3 opener with William and Mary.
“In the end, you have to, for the good of the team, find the guys that you think are pushing the best towards being able to help you win right away,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said after practice Monday night, “and then accelerate them, because there aren’t enough reps [for everybody].”
Virginia opened training camp Aug. 5, and in each of the first 10 practices, Lazor divided the snaps more or less equally among the four quarterbacks. Then came the Cavaliers’ first intrasquad scrimmage. Standouts Saturday night at Scott Stadium included Rocco and Watford, and so it was no surprise when UVa coach Mike London singled them out Monday morning.
“I think we are now in a position to look at those two guys getting the reps that they need,” London said on a teleconference with reporters.
“So we’re going to look at an extended amount of reps for Michael and make sure David gets his opportunities also,” London said. “Not to say anything about what Ross is doing or what Michael Strauss is doing, but we’re just going to start picking the spots … to get more looks for guys.”
Lazor said he was pleased with the play of Rocco and Watford in practice Monday. He expects both to continue improving.
“It’s going to be a cumulative effect,” Lazor said. “Getting more reps gets you better and better and better.”
As a true freshman last season, Rocco appeared in six games. He completed 13 of 25 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown. He threw two interceptions.
Asked what Rocco has done this summer to ascend to the top of the depth chart, Lazor said, “I think the No. 1 thing that a quarterback has to do for us is make sure that our playmakers are getting the ball in their hands. And so to do that, it’s everything from how you run the huddle, to making sure the checks are right, to making good decisions and being accurate, which in the end is the key to being productive. But it’s everything. We’ve got a lot of skill players here that we think can help us win, and the quarterback’s got to make sure they all get their turn on the ball.”
Watford, who starred for Hampton High School last season, enrolled at UVa in January. The pace of the college game overwhelmed Watford at times during spring practice, but he’s looked like a different player during training camp.
“When you’re talking about a guy like David who’s been here for 27 practices now, there’s so much that a guy has to learn, going from being a high school football player to being a college football player,” Lazor said Monday night. “So the strides come literally every day, and every period of practice he learns something new. His great asset probably is his attitude and how he soaks it all in. He’s really a humble guy who isn’t afraid to admit there’s something he doesn’t know. He’d rather say, ‘Yes, Coach,’ internalize it and then do better next time. As long as he keeps doing that, I can’t imagine he won’t keep getting better.”
During the scrimmage Saturday night, UVa’s assistant coaches were on the sidelines. London stayed on the field, watching the quarterbacks closely.
“Michael [Rocco] has done a nice job,” London said. “All the guys have done a nice job, but now the time is coming to put guys in position for Bill Lazor to call particular pass plays and concepts, to see if David Watford can make the correct read, if Michael Rocco can make the correct read.”
Once those questions are answered, the coaching staff will have a better idea how to proceed at quarterback. Metheny, who appeared in five games last season, could be called on if Rocco or Watford falters. The same is true for Strauss.
“We reserve the right to do what’s best for the team at every moment, so there’s no doubt that if we feel like a different direction is the best thing, Coach London will pull the trigger,” Lazor said.
Competition is “the best thing you can have,” Lazor said, “and I would expect to have it all year.”
For now, London said Monday, “I just want to make sure that I’ve given the opportunity for David and Michael Rocco … to have reps, to show, whether it’s on a read or a throw or a decision, that they can do that, that you can put them in the game.”