By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa football fans can expect to see more Michael Rocco and less David Watford at quarterback for the rest of the season.
Rocco, a sophomore from Lynchburg, has started every game for the Cavaliers this season, but Watford, a true freshman from Hampton, has seen his playing time increase over the past month. That’s about to change, second-year coach Mike London told reporters.
The coaching staff’s job is to put players in position to be successful, London said on his weekly Sunday night teleconference, and if that means “dialing back some of David’s opportunities … and allowing Michael to hang in there a little bit longer and play the game, then we have to do that.”
UVa (1-2 ACC, 4-3 overall) plays Thursday night at Miami (2-2, 4-3) in a nationally televised game on ESPN. Virginia is coming off a 28-14 loss to NC State at Scott Stadium, a game in which Watford threw a 60-yard touchdown pass but completed only 4 of 16 attempts and was intercepted three times.
Rocco wasn’t much sharper. He led the Cavaliers on a first-quarter TD drive, after which Watford replaced him for a series. Rocco wasn’t the same once he re-entered the game. His final 10 passes were incompletions.
“I want the guys to be successful,” London said Sunday night. “They’re trying. They don’t want to throw interceptions, they don’t want to do those type of things, but I’m in it for the long haul for these guys for their overall development. Part of coaching is looking and seeing how you’re doing it, and maybe we may have to change some things as far as David when he goes in.”
London worries that Watford could be overwhelmed by the pressures that come with playing as a first-year quarterback. Watford is more likely to be inserted for plays than for series during the rest of the season.
Watford “has a tremendous amount of talent and is going to be a good player here,” London said, “but I don’t want to put him in the situation where you try to put the ball game on his shoulders, or every decision, every throw, every check, every play call is something that he’s being scrutinized for. In order to take some of that off his plate, I’ve decided to make sure that his role in the offense is one that can provide him a level of success, because he still has to go to class here. He still has to be a lot of things other than just a quarterback for this team.
“We are going to go down that route the next five games here — hopefully six games — and we’ll continue to keep developing him, and [the coaches] feel much better about his development now with the opportunities that he’s had. He’s been in games, has made big throws, made big runs. For his continued development, we want to make sure that we limit his role a little bit more and let him watch, let him absorb, let him learn, and let him play at the right opportunities.”
In recent games, Virginia’s first-half quarterback rotation was scripted, with Watford taking over on the fourth or fifth series. Rocco returned later in those games but rarely was able to replicate his early performances.
Watford finished the game in UVa’s overtime victory over Idaho on Oct. 1, and he played most of the second half against NC State.
For the season, Rocco has completed 109 of 182 passes (59.9 percent) for 1,186 yards and four touchdowns, with eight interceptions. Watford is 30 for 71 passing (42.3 percent) for 356 yards and three TDs, with four picks.
“I think as a coaching staff this makes sense for us right now,” London said. “This is an opportunity for us to move forward, rally behind one cause, and the cause is to try to win as many games as we can coming down the stretch.”
Virginia needs to win two of its five remaining regular-season games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
INCREASED PRODUCTION: The Cavaliers averaged 30.8 yards on their four kickoff returns against NC State, and that phase of special teams is becoming one of their strengths.
For the season, true freshman Darius Jennings, a second-team wide receiver, has returned 19 kickoffs for 407 yards (21.4 average). Redshirt freshman Khalek Shepherd, UVa’s No. 4 tailback, has had fewer opportunities than Jennings, but the son of former NFL player Leslie Shepherd has flashed game-breaking ability.
Shepherd totaled 72 yards on two returns against NC State, with a long of 48. For the season, he has gained 194 yards on seven returns, an average of 27.7.
“Khalek does a great job of just having an eye,” London said, “being a running back and having a feel and an eye for the openings and an understanding for what we are trying to get done. He has raised the level of his play, allowing us an opportunity to change our field position.”
The Wahoos returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season, one by Raynard Horne (against VMI) and the other by Terence Fells-Danzer (Eastern Michigan).
BIG STAGE: Five years have passed since UVa was showcased in a Thursday night game on ESPN. The ‘Hoos had two Thursday night games in 2006.
In the first, on Sept. 21, Virginia lost 24-7 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Then, on Oct. 19, UVa blanked North Carolina 23-0 at Scott Stadium.
“I’ve never played on a Thursday night, so it’s definitely a new experience for me,” wide receiver Kris Burd, a fifth-year senior, said after practice Monday morning.
“The excitement is already building up, that anxiety, that anticipation of going out there and being able to show exactly what we can do on a national stage. It’s definitely exciting. You can feel the buzz in the locker room, everybody kind of anticipating this game and making that trip down there. It’s an exciting deal.”
INSPIRATIONAL LEADER: Wideout Matt Snyder, a fifth-year senior, broke a bone in his left foot in practice last week, and he’s expected to miss the rest of the regular season. But Snyder, who’s one of the Cavaliers’ captains, remains an integral part of the team and the receiving corps.
“The only thing he’s not doing is practicing,” Burd said. “He’s in all the meetings and at the game and practice on the sideline, in the locker room. We talk regularly. He was just on the field [at practice Monday], and he’s still that same vocal leader … It’s definitely helping us as a group.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: True freshman Dominique Terrell fielded two punts Saturday. The first he returned 10 yards. The second he fumbled, and the Wolfpack recovered at the Virginia 25-yard line with 3:22 remaining.
For the season, Terrell has gained only 54 yards on his 10 punt returns, but London hasn’t lost faith in him.
“With this young man, it’s going to take one return where he breaks one level,” London said, “and everyone else will have a chance to see how dynamic this young man can be.
“As a coach, you can say, ‘You know what? We’re giving up on you,’ ” London said. “Or you can say, ‘You know what? We believe in you.’ “
London said better blocking on returns will help Terrell be more productive. “I think he’s just one catch away from being the dynamic player we recruited and that we believe he can be.”
TRENDING UPWARD: Since losing 38-35 at Virginia Tech, Miami has won two straight, beating North Carolina 30-24 on Oct. 15 and then crushing Georgia Tech 24-7 on Saturday.
The Hurricanes are in their first season under Al Golden, with whom London worked first at Boston College and then at UVa, where they were assistants on Al Groh’s staff.
In August, allegations of NCAA violations committed by a booster, Nevin Shapiro, rocked the Miami program, and 12 players have served suspensions of varying lengths this season. All of those players are now back for Golden, and his team is starting to jell.
“We’ve played a tough schedule amidst a transition year and amidst a lot of adversity that we could not foresee coming,” Golden told reporters Sunday. “There’s been a lot of transition, there’s been a lot of inconsistency, and now we’re starting to get some traction. They’re starting to understand the process. They’re starting to understand what it means to be consistent and to take care of your business every day, and I think they’re starting to see results.”
Golden’s top players include senior linebacker Sean Spence, who was suspended for the opener. Maryland capitalized on his absence in a 32-24 win over Miami.
Spence leads the ‘Canes with 65 tackles. He also has a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss.
“Shawn Spence right now is playing lights out,” Golden said. “There’s good years, there’s great years, and then there’s special years. Right now he’s having a special year.”
SECONDARY ROLES: With alumni who include Heath Miller, John Phillips, Jon Stupar and Tom Santi, the UVa football program likes to call itself “Tight End U.” Through seven games, this season, however, the Cavaliers’ tight ends have caught only eight passes for 53 yards (and one touchdown).
Junior Colter Phillips, who caught 18 passes for 155 yards and three TDs in 2010, does not have a reception this season. (Phillips missed three games with an ankle injury.)
“It’s not a conscious decision to take the tight ends out,” London said Sunday night. “On our bootlegs and play-action passes, the tight ends are very much part of the reads. Just for whatever reason, the ball hasn’t gone to them at this moment, or yet. That’s just something we keep looking at, but we haven’t exclusively taken them out.”