By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Michael Rocco will start Saturday night against William and Mary. David Watford will play.
Rocco, a sophomore from Lynchburg, has taken most of the snaps with the first-team offense for the past two weeks, so it was no surprise to see him listed as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart UVa released Monday afternoon.
Watford has been working extensively as Rocco’s backup in practice, but Virginia coach Mike London said Saturday morning, after the team’s final scrimmage at Scott Stadium, that no decision had been made on whether the true freshman from Hampton would play this season.
London clarified Watford’s status Monday afternoon. UVa, which went 4-8 in 2010, opens the new season at 6 p.m. Saturday against W&M at Scott Stadium.
“I’m committed to putting David Watford in the game, because he has another skill level,” London told reporters at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I think one of the things we’re trying to do is find athleticism. We’re trying to find the playmakers and trying to find guys that can help us win. As I said going into this, David has a set of skills that are still developing, but at the same time it’s something this team can utilize.”
Rocco, who played in six games as a true freshman last season, has been working primarily with the first team since Virginia’s first intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 13.
“He’s a very consistent quarterback,” said fifth-year senior Kris Burd, UVa’s top returning wideout.
“He’s very capable of getting the job done, and I’m real confident in him. He’s a soft-spoken guy, but when he does speak, the team listens, and I feel like that’s a great quality to have in a quarterback. I feel like he’s definitely leading us in the right direction.”
Watford, who enrolled at UVa in January, has “great playmaking ability,” Burd said. “I feel like as a receiver, when you’ve got somebody back there that can make plays, you can never stop till the whistle blows. He can make something happen.”
If Rocco or Watford falters, another option at quarterback is redshirt sophomore Ross Metheny, who appeared in five games last season.
“I think our team has a lot of confidence in Michael Rocco, and I think they have a lot of confidence in Ross Metheny,” London said. “In terms of the development of David, I think there’s a confidence level that they have when he does some things. He can do some things that are special. Does he still have to learn? Yes, he does. But that’s part of the process. The process of him learning will happen as the season goes on.”
Overall, as many as a dozen true freshmen could play for the Cavaliers, London indicated. Eight were listed on the depth chart Monday: Watford, tailback Clifton Richardson, wide receivers Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings, offensive tackle Kelby Johnson, linebacker Daquan Romero, cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and safety Anthony Harris.
Redshirt freshmen expected to make their college debuts Saturday include tailbacks Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd, offensive guard Conner Davis, tight end Jake McGee, linebacker Henry Coley, cornerback Drequan Hoskey and long-snapper Matt Fortin.
“I’m excited to see the young guys get out there and kind of tear it up Saturday,” Burd said.
Nicholson will start in the secondary. Neither Terrell nor Jennings will necessarily be on the field for UVa’s first play from scrimmage, but each figures to play a prominent role on special teams as well as on offense. Terrell is listed as the No. 1 punt-returner, and Jennings and Parks are the No. 1 kick-returners.
Chase Minnifield, the team’s top punt-returner in 2010, is back this season, as is Perry Jones, who returned kickoffs. But London likes the idea of giving Minnifield, an All-ACC cornerback, and Jones, UVa’s No. 1 tailback, breaks during games.
“If things happen where we have to make changes, we can always go back to them,” London said. “But starting out, I’m going to give these young players an opportunity.”
NEW ROLE: In 2010, London’s first season as Virginia’s head coach, he played three true freshmen: Rocco, Rijo Walker and Morgan Moses, who’s now starting at right offensive tackle.
Walker, who played cornerback and on special teams last year, recently moved to free safety, where he’s listed as the backup to starter Corey Mosley, a senior.
“He’s a corner that has good skills and ability, but he’s also a smart guy,” London said of his fellow Bethel High graduate Walker. “You want your safeties back there to be able to call defenses, get you lined up.
“I think his development playing last season, knowing the defense, put him in the position now where he can also play safety. You always like those corners that can play safety … His [learning] curve has fast-forwarded to the point he has a great understanding and grasp of the defense and how to run it.”
ON THE LINE: The Cavaliers’ top three defensive tackles are fifth-year seniors Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath and junior Will Hill. No. 4 is Justin Renfrow, a 6-6, 300-pound sophomore.
Redshirt freshman Chris Brathwaite was a candidate to break into the rotation at tackle until he injured his knee during training camp. Brathwaite had arthroscopic surgery and might not return before Virginia’s ACC opener, Sept. 17 at North Carolina, defensive line coach Jeff Hanson said.
Another defensive tackle, true freshman Vincent Croce, also has been sidelined by an injury. That’s meant more reps in practice for one of Croce’s classmates, David Dean.
“He’s got a chance to be a real good football player,” Hanson said of the 6-1 Dean, a graduate of Virginia Beach’s Green Run High.
“He’s 285 pounds, and the thing about David is, he’s got quick hands, he’s got good punch. The biggest thing for a freshman is just learning the system. Some things are confusing to him right now, and therefore he’s not playing fast.”
LITTLE BIG MEN: Of the four tailbacks on the depth chart, only Richardson (6-0, 215) is taller than 5-8 or heavier than 195 pounds. Jones and Shepherd are each listed at 5-8, 185; Parks, at 5-8, 195.
“I hear that a lot, about our backs being small,” offensive tackle Oday Aboushi said, “but they have the biggest hearts in the world, and I know they run so hard every play, and every play they’re going to try to get the extra yard, whether it’s a first-down or a fourth-down play, and we have all the confidence in them.”
Running backs coach Mike Faragalli said: “I think we have four really good guys going into the season. Last year proved that we’re really going to need all of them at some point in time during the course of an 11- or 12-game schedule.”
UVa used four tailbacks in 2010: Jones, Keith Payne, Raynard Horne and Torrey Mack.
NAME TO REMEMBER: Of the true freshmen who are likely to play this season, Johnson might have been the least heralded as a recruit. But the 6-7, 300-pound DeMatha High graduate is backing up Aboushi at left tackle and, wearing jersey No. 75, bears more than a passing resemblance to former UVa great Eugene Monroe.
“He’s very, very, very talented,” offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim said of Johnson. “God’s given him a great gift, and it’s going to be really neat to see him develop. I don’t think he’s going to come in and be a world-beater as a true freshman, but boy, you see the talent, and given an opportunity to work with [strength coach] Evan Marcus and lift weights, he’s just going to continue to develop every day … Every day he does one thing better than he did the day before.”
OPTIONS ABOUND: A season ago, wide receivers coach Shawn Moore went essentially with a three-man rotation: Burd, Matt Snyder and Dontrelle Inman, who combined for 139 catches.
Moore’s wideouts this season include Burd, Snyder, Jennings, Terrell, Ray Keys, Tim Smith, Miles Gooch, E.J. Scott, Kevin Royal and Johnny Pickett.
“Last year was a grind,” Burd said. “We were kind of shallow at receiver, didn’t have a lot of people rotating. Depth at the receiver position is definitely a big thing. You can have fresher legs [and take a break] if you’re tired, get a little wind and feel confident about the guys that are going in after you.”
The arrival of Jennings and Terrell “definitely has added playmakers to the offense,” Burd said. “I feel like they have ability and quickness and speed to make plays for the offense, and they can only make the team better.”
Asked what makes them so dangerous, Burd said, “I would say downfield speed. They’re some fast guys. In open space, they can make people miss.”