By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Michael Rocco, family is no longer 65 miles away. Yes, his parents still live in Lynchburg, but his cousin Amy Rocco, a fellow graduate of Liberty Christian Academy, is a first-year student at UVa, and his sister, Jennifer Rocco, is teaching at nearby Monticello High School.
“It’s always nice to go over to her house or have a nice little family dinner or have her take me out to dinner,” Rocco said Monday afternoon.
If Rocco, a quarterback on the UVa football team, seems especially comfortable this summer, it’s not only because his support system in town has grown. At this time last August, he was still barely out of LCA, a true freshman trying to master the intricacies of Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system.
Twelve months later, the 6-3, 225-pound right-hander is working with the Cavaliers’ first-team offense. Head coach Mike London has yet to publicly say who will start at quarterback for Virginia in its Sept. 3 opener against William and Mary, but if the game were today, Rocco almost certainly would get the call.
For the past week, a stretch that included the Wahoos’ second scrimmage, Rocco has been taking most of the snaps with the first team.
“It’s allowed me to gain a good bit of confidence, and I just have a little bit more command over the huddle knowing I’m going to be the guy in there with the first team, getting the reps,” Rocco said Monday. “Guys listen to me, and they take my coaching and my command pretty well. It’s just allowed me to get a lot of practice against the No. 1 defense, too.”
A nephew of former UVa assistant Danny Rocco, now the head coach at Liberty University, Michael Rocco grew up in a football family. His 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 Liberty Christian Academy. Michael’s brother, Chris, was an all-Big South safety for Danny Rocco at Liberty.
London described him last summer as “very poised, very mature for his age,” and so it was no shock that Rocco played as a true freshman. Marc Verica started every game for the ‘Hoos, but Rocco made made six appearances, completing 13 of 25 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions.
Verica was a senior in 2010, and when spring practice opened this year, four quarterbacks began their battle for the starting job: Rocco, redshirt sophomore Ross Metheny, redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford.
No clear standout emerged in the spring, and the competition carried over into the summer. After UVa’s first scrimmage, Aug. 13 at Scott Stadium, Rocco began working mostly with the first team, and he’s benefiting from the extra snaps he’s getting in practice.
“No doubt,” he said. “Especially in this past scrimmage, I felt myself playing with more confidence than I’ve ever had, and getting more reps, I think, is the key component to that. Just being comfortable with my players and knowing who I have around me to get the ball in their hands.”
Lazor critiques the play of Rocco and the other quarterbacks each day. Asked which area Lazor most wants him to work on, Rocco said, “I wouldn’t say one thing in particular. He’s just said whenever I increase my production and get the offense moving at a production level that he’s used to, then we’ll become great as an offense.”
Shawn Moore, whom many consider the greatest quarterback in school history, now coaches UVa’s wide receivers. Of Rocco, Moore said, “I think he’s just playing with more confidence. Last year I used to tell him all the time that he needed to pick up his level of urgency, and he’s done a tremendous job of that this camp.
“He plays at a more intense level, and he takes command. He knows what he’s doing. You can tell he plays with confidence. The kids respect him, in and out of the huddle.”
Rocco said: “I’m more of a leader by example. I try to have my actions do my talking. If I need to talk to one of my linemen or get into his face, I will, but only when necessary. I like to encourage and be a good teammate, too.”
There’s nothing brash about the way Rocco carries himself, on or off the field. But he understands that leadership skills can be as essential as a strong arm or quick feet for a quarterback, and he knows he can’t always defer to his elders.
“I’d say I have to kind of get out of my comfort zone and be a little bit more vocal than I have in the past,” Rocco said.
Among those surrounding him in the huddle are senior wideouts Kris Burd and Matt Snyder, junior tight ends Colter Phillips and Paul Freedman, senior fullback Max Milien, senior guard Austin Pasztor, senior center Anthony Mihota and junior tackle Oday Aboushi.
Leading older teammates “takes a little bit getting used to,” Rocco said, “but in high school I was kind of put in the same situation and had to take command of older guys, too. So I’m kind of used to it.”
At LCA, Rocco earned the starting job at quarterback as a ninth-grader. He’s risen to the top of the depth chart early in his college career, too. Rocco is determined to stay there.
“I’ve always felt that if I do what I need to do, I can win the starting job, and so I’ve always prepared as if I’m the starter,” he said. “So I’m going to come out like I’m the starter and whatever happens, happens. But I believe in my ability and I believe in the abilities God’s given me, so I’m just going to come out and do my best, and I’ll let the coaches decide.”
Rocco is living this school year with teammates Zachary Swanson, Drequan Hoskey and Pablo Alvarez, all of whom arrived at UVa with him last summer. The lights come on early in their apartment. With training camp over, the ‘Hoos will now practice in the morning most days, with the players due at the McCue Center around 6 a.m.
“We did it in the spring,” Rocco said. “It’s going to be something to get used to, getting up early, but we’ll get adapted to it pretty quickly.”