By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Michael Rocco is a competitor, and he’d love to take every snap for UVa’s football team. The sophomore from Lynchburg knows, however, that how much he plays is up to his coaches, and so he tries to focus on what he can control: his performance at quarterback.
“Really, I just gotta go out and do my thing on the field and be a leader, be a teammate,” Rocco said after practice Tuesday morning. “Whatever happens off the field happens off the field, and I can’t really let it play with my mind either way, good or bad. So I’m just going to stay focused and play the way I can play on the field and lead our team to victory.”
Rocco has started every game this season for Virginia (1-2, 4-3), which plays Thursday night at ACC rival Miami (2-2, 4-3). But at some point in every game the coaching staff has replaced Rocco with true freshman David Watford — sometimes for a series or two, other times for long stretches.
Virginia will continue to use Watford this season, but in a reduced role, second-year coach Mike London told reporters Monday. “For his development, [Watford] needs to take a step back here and watch a little bit, because I think that in the long run it will be best for him and best for the team.”
That decision, of course, directly affects Rocco, who appeared in six games as a true freshman last season. With five regular-season games remaining, the 6-3, 225-pound right-hander is eager to assume a larger role in second-year coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense.
“It’s just easier to get into a rhythm when you’re out on the field more often, and it’s easier to get into a flow of the game,” Rocco said Tuesday. “A lot of the game of football is getting into a flow and knowing what the game speed is like. It’s going to be easier being out on the field and being with the guys more often.”
For the season, Rocco has completed 109 of 182 passes (59.9 percent) for 1,186 yards and four touchdowns. He’s thrown eight interceptions. The 6-1, 190-pound Watford is 30-of-71 passing for 346 yards and three TDs, with four interceptions.
Splitting time with Watford hasn’t always been easy for Rocco, but he’s convinced the experience will pay dividends for him.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I really believe in that,” said Rocco, who played for his father, Frank, at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg.
“This has been not the picture-perfect situation, and God’s really working in my life to make me a stronger person and a stronger leader and a stronger teammate, and I really believe it’s going to work out in the end.”
In each of UVa’s first six games, Rocco completed at least 51 percent of his passes. Against NC State on Saturday, he connected on 7 of his first 9 attempts, the last of which was a 6-yard touchdown pass to tailback Clifton Richardson. But Rocco finished the game 7 for 19 for only 36 yards, the first time this season he passed for fewer than 118 yards.
After throwing the TD pass to Richardson, Rocco came out on UVa’s next series, which ended with the first of Watford’s three interceptions. For whatever reason, Rocco never regained his rhythm after re-entering the game, and he spent most of the fourth quarter on the sideline watching Watford try to rally UVa past NC State, which won 28-14.
“It had a little bit to do with kind of getting out of the flow,” Rocco said, “and when I tried to get back in the flow, either I made an inaccurate pass or a receiver dropped a ball. It’s an accumulation of things, but the stats show what they show.
“It was a combination of me missing a receiver or a receiver dropping a ball, but I take responsibility for it, and I’ve got to get better.”
Virginia ranks 50th nationally in total offense (407.4 yards per game) but only 80th in scoring offense (24.9 points per game). For those rankings to improve, the offense needs the players “around Michael to raise their level,” London said.
“We have to be able to run the ball better. We have to be able to get the ball to [wideouts] Kris Burd and Tim Smith. Tim for the last couple of games has caught the long touchdown passes, and we need to continue to keep doing that and take multiple shots.”
Quarterbacks are usually the most scrutinized players on the field, and a national audience will assess Rocco’s performance against the Hurricanes. This will be the Wahoos’ first appearance on ESPN’s Thursday night showcase since 2006.
“It’s special,” Rocco said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m glad that we get the opportunity to do this. We’ve had to kind of cram our week of preparation into a short week, but both teams have to prepare in this short week, so it’s not like we’re at a disadvantage here.”
At LCA, Rocco starred in one of the state’s most successful high school programs. His father is a former starting quarterback at Penn State, and they talk on the phone most nights. Frank Rocco’s message to his younger son?
“He’s really just telling me to stay focused, that God’s in control, and it’s really the truth,” Michael said. “I just gotta stay focused, be a good teammate, be a good leader and not let what happens outside of my control dictate how I play or how I react to situations. I just try to keep a smile on my face and be a good teammate, be a good leader.”