By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — About 150 miles separate Hampton High School and the University of Virginia, a distance that does not accurately reflect how far quarterback David Watford has come in the past year.
Watford completed his graduation requirements at Hampton High last December, a semester ahead of his classmates. A month later, he became a Cavalier, enrolling midyear at UVa and joining head coach Mike London’s football program.
He has completed two semesters of college work, plus summer-school classes. He’s been through spring practice, Evan Marcus’ offseason strength-and-conditioning program, training camp and a full regular season. And now the 6-1, 190-pound true freshman is preparing for Virginia’s first bowl appearance since 2007.
On New Year’s Eve, UVa (8-4) will meet Auburn (7-5) at the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Watford is listed on the Wahoos’ depth chart as the No. 2 quarterback, behind sophomore Michael Rocco.
“It’s been a long ride, I guess, a long journey,” Watford said after a recent practice, “just coming from where I was last year to right now. A lot has changed. I feel like I’ve matured a lot, and I’ve learned a lot. It’s just been a lot of fun.”
His classes have been challenging, Watford said, “but that’s good. You have to do a lot of work and spend more time studying [than in high school]. It’s everything they said the University of Virginia was going to be academically. It’s lived up to that.”
He didn’t know exactly what to expect when he enrolled at UVa, Watford said, other than it would be a learning experience, “and that’s what it’s been. It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been a lot of learning, and I’ve made a lot of new friends. These are my brothers out here I’m playing with now. I have my brothers back in Hampton, but these are the brothers I’m going to be playing with for the next four years.”
Watford played in each of UVa’s first seven games, and in only one of them did he throw fewer than five passes. Since Virginia’s Oct. 22 loss to NC State, however, his game-day role has diminished dramatically.
Against the Wolfpack, Watford threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to wideout Tim Smith. But he completed only 3 of his other 15 attempts that day — for 29 yards — and was intercepted three times. Afterward, London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor modified the quarterback rotation they had been using, and Rocco took virtually all of the snaps in the final five regular-season games, four of which the ‘Hoos won.
Since the 28-14 loss to NC State, Watford has attempted only three passes — all incompletions against Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale — and he did not play against Duke or Florida State.
“I’m sure on the inside, like any competitor, he wants more, but I’m happy with how he’s handling the role that he’s in,” Lazor said. “He still continues to compete, so I think he has just the right attitude. He’s handled everything well. He’s enthusiastic about everything he’s given.”
Watford said: “I’ve been pushing Roc, and Roc has been pushing me, and we’re just trying to get better. I’m just going to try to keep working as hard as I can, so I can still get back out there on the field. And when I do get in, nothing changes with the offense. We’re doing the same plays, so I’m just working as hard as I can every day in practice to get better.”
For the season, Watford has completed 30 of 74 passes for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions. His 27-yard TD pass to classmate Dominique Terrell in overtime Oct. 1 helped UVa pull out a 21-20 victory over Idaho at Scott Stadium.
Watford assesses his performance with maturity not always evident in first-year players.
“I made a lot of mistakes in my early games, but they were a learning experience for me, and I needed to make those mistakes in order to get better as a player,” he said. “Of course, you would go back and say, ‘Yeah, I would do this here,’ or ‘I would change this there,’ but I needed to make those mistakes in order to learn and grow as a player, so it just helped my growth.”
The challenges of playing as a true freshman include “getting used to the speed of the game,” Watford said. “There’s more thinking involved in college football, because it’s faster, and there’s more thought involved in every play.”
When he replaced Al Groh as head coach after the 2009 season, London took over a team that had only one quarterback — Marc Verica — who had taken a snap in a college game. Verica started every game as a fifth-year senior in 2010, but Rocco appeared in six games as a true freshman.
A redshirt year is generally beneficial for a quarterback, Lazor acknowledged, but that’s not always the best option for the team.
“I think they’re always better in their fifth year than they are in their first year, so certainly you have a chance to develop them if they can learn for a year,” Lazor said. “But at every level, that’s not always the case, and you have to deal with what you have, and I think we’ve done a good job working with Coach London and making the best decisions. We had to do the same thing last year, we thought, with Michael Rocco playing some as a true freshman, rather than redshirting, and I’m certain that it’s allowed him to be a better player this year, because he had that experience last year.”
Given all that Watford has had to learn this year, Lazor said, “I think he’s doing great, and he’s moving at a pretty fast pace. I’m happy with how he’s coming. I think David’s future’s really bright.”
As the statistics reveal, accuracy has been an issue for Watford, who has completed only 40.5 percent of his passes (to Rocco’s 60.3 percent).
“I think consistency in his techniques is the thing that he’ll be able to work on the most between when our [December] practices and bowl game end and then spring practice starts,” Lazor said. “There’s certain things that you can’t do without the whole team together, but he can work on the consistency of his play. It takes thousands and thousands of throws for a quarterback to get consistent enough to be productive. He only needs one person to catch for him at a time, so he can work on that, and I expect he will.”
With spring practice comes “a fresh start,” Watford said, and he’s eager to compete with Rocco again and help the ‘Hoos advance to a bowl game again next season.
“We just have to keep the tradition going,” he said. “We started with a bowl this year, and we gotta go to one next year and every year following that, so we can get back into that bowl mentality.”