By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, in a Georgia Dome locker room filled with disappointed football players, many of whom would never suit up for UVa again, Michael Rocco stepped forward.
Rocco was barely 18 months removed from high school, but he’d grown as a leader over the course of the season, and now, shortly after Virginia’s 43-24 loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he made his voice heard.
“I just kind of quickly addressed the team after the game, and thanked the seniors for everything they did for us and the leadership that they showed,” Rocco recalled Thursday. “And I encouraged our younger guys to keep pressing forward, because we were a [victory] away from the ACC championship game, and we have the talent in that room to get there and win.”
Rocco started all 13 games at quarterback for the Cavaliers last season, and in the final one, against Auburn, he completed 26 of 41 passes for a career-high 312 yards and two touchdowns. Only once has a UVa quarterback thrown for more yards in a bowl game.
A year ago, the Wahoos entered spring practice with four quarterbacks competing for the starting job: Rocco, David Watford, Ross Metheny and Michael Strauss.
This spring, the depth chart at that position is clearly defined. Rocco, a rising junior, is No. 1; Watford, a rising sophomore, is No. 2; and Greyson Lambert, a freshman who enrolled at the University in January, is No. 3. (Metheny and Strauss have left the program.)
Fans can check out the quarterbacks — and the other Cavaliers — Saturday afternoon in the Orange-Blue spring game at the Scott Stadium. Rocco will play for the Orange squad, along with the rest of the first-team offense (and the second-team defense). Watford will take snaps for both the Orange and the Blue, and Lambert will work with the Blue, which pairs the first-team defense with the second-team offense.
The ‘Hoos are exceptionally thin on the offensive line and at cornerback this spring. Still, “we’re going to play a game as much as possible Saturday,” third-year coach Mike London said Thursday. Kickoffs won’t be returned in the spring game, which will be broadcast on ESPN3 and Cavaliers Live on VirginiaSports.com, but fans will see four quarters of football on what is expected to be a beautiful spring day.
For Rocco, a graduate of Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, the spring game will be another opportunity to show how far he’s come over the past year.
“I just feel more confident, like I’m the leader of the offense,” Rocco said. “Last year it was kind of all about the competition [for the starting job] to me. There’s still going to be competition every day, but I’ve started 13 games and I’m just more confident right now.”
London said he’s seen Rocco emerge as a leader. And now, as a returning starter, Rocco has earned the right “to have a platform to speak to the team, because he played in games and he won games for us,” London said.
No. 16 remains soft-spoken, but Rocco is “being more vocal than what he’s been in the past,” London said. “And that’s just because a quarterback needs sometimes to grab a guy and say, ‘Listen, let’s go.’ “
Rocco said: “Part of that leadership comes from playing and actually doing it and having your teammates respect you because they see that you can do it on the field. I kind of grew into that this year. I believe that throughout the season I grew more and more into a leadership role, and people respected me more and more for what I did.”
Seniors dominated UVa’s lineup last season, and spring practice has partly been about filling the holes left by the departures of such players as Max Milien, Terence Fells-Danzer, Matt Snyder, Kris Burd, Austin Pasztor, Anthony Mihota, Cam Johnson, Nick Jenkins, Matt Conrath, Aaron Taliaferro, Rodney McLeod, Dom Joseph, Cory Mosley, Chase Minnifield, Chris Hinkebein, Robert Randolph and Jimmy Howell.
“With those guys gone, new guys are stepping up,” Rocco said, “and I would like to think that I’m one of those guys, being a leader not only on the field but off of it.”
For the first seven games, Rocco and Watford split time at quarterback in 2011. In the final six games, Rocco took virtually every snap. He finished the season 222-of-366 passing (60.7 percent) for 2,671 yards — the fourth-most in program history — and 13 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.
“I think my comfort level early on in the season was a little shaky at times, just because I was kind of in a new situation, being the starting quarterback,” said Rocco, a reserve as a true freshman in 2010.
“A lot of people say it looked like a lightbulb went off in my head in the middle part of the season when we went on that four-game winning streak, but it really was just a gradual process. It came from time in the film room and time on the practice field. But there are a lot of things that I need to improve on, [including] my footwork and timing. Everything’s getting better from these spring practices and will continue to get better over the summer, but those are a couple of things that when I look back on film I really think that I can improve on.”
The same goes for the offense, which returns seven starters from 2011 — Rocco, tailback Perry Jones, wide receiver Tim Smith, tight end Colter Phillips, guard Luke Bowanko and tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses. (Phillips, Bowanko and Aboushi are recovering from injuries and are among the players who won’t participate in the spring game Saturday.)
In 2011, its second season under coordinator Bill Lazor, UVa’s offense ranked 46th nationally in yards per game (399.8) but only 86th in points per game (23.2).
“Last year was more about kind of regrooving the basics of the offense,” Rocco said. “This year we’re past that. We had those bowl practices where we kind of got back to basics a little bit, and we’re kind of more advanced right now, and we’re pushing forward and adding more and more to the offense to take us to a new level.”
Watford, who enrolled at UVa in January 2011, appeared in 10 games last season, completing 30 of 74 passes for 346 yards and three TDs, with four interceptions. He, too, has looked more comfortable and more confident this spring.
“He’s talented, and he’s raised his game up another level,” London said. “I’ve always said that because he’s raised his level, he’s forced Mike to raise his level.”
Rocco said: “Having Coach Lazor as our coach is only going to make us better. We both realize that, and I know Greyson is starting to realize that too. Coach Lazor just demands so much from us, and if we just keep buying into his system, the only thing we can do is get better. David is getting better, and I notice that, and I would think that he would say the same thing about me. We just keep pushing each other, because we realize that to take this offense to a new level, the leadership at the quarterback position has to be great.”
EXTRA POINTS: The spring game, which is free, will start shortly after 2 p.m. Gates at Scott Stadium open at noon, and fans will be able to take part in activities on the field until 1:15 p.m. The team will conduct pre-game warm-ups and drills starting at 1:30 p.m.
UVa merchandise will be available at Cavalier Team Shop locations inside the stadium, and free posters and magnets will be distributed. Fans also will have an opportunity to buy game-worn UVa jerseys and helmets. These items will be sold as-is. They’ll be available under the scoreboard at the top of the hill inside the stadium. Cash and credit cards will be accepted, but no checks.
Also, an autographed and framed Chris Long jersey will be auctioned off.
Finally, an autograph session with current players will be held on the field after the game.