By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the first play of the Orange-Blue football game Saturday afternoon, miscommunication between starting quarterback Michael Rocco and tailback Perry Jones resulted in an incompletion. Such passing-game breakdowns were rare the rest of the afternoon at Scott Stadium.
In their third year together, head coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor want UVa to produce more big plays. Those who watched the spring game in person or on-line Saturday know that’s a realistic goal.
In a 32-minute game that the Orange squad, which included the first-team offense, won 20-17, Rocco completed 12 of 21 passes for 194 yards. His targets included wideouts Smith, Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings, tight ends McGee and Paul Freedman, and fullback Zachary Swanson.
The Cavaliers’ No. 2 quarterback, rising sophomore David Watford, spent the first half with the Blue team, which paired the starting defense with the offensive reserves. In the fourth quarter, though, Watford switched to the Orange team and connected with McGee for a 34-yard gain.
Watford’s combined stats: 9 for 22 passes for 131 yards and one interception.
Greyson Lambert, who graduated from high school in December and enrolled at Virginia in January, quarterbacked the Blue squad in the second half and flashed his enormous potential. He finished 8-of-15 passing for 75 yards. The 6-5 Lambert’s completions included a 31-yarder to wideout Miles Gooch, and he also teamed with tailback Kevin Parks on a 13-yard touchdown pass.
“I’m pleased with our quarterbacks right now,” London said, and Lazor was upbeat, too.
This spring, Lazor told reporters Saturday, it “was nice having two returning guys with really good experience to go along with their ability level. With the addition of Greyson, I think, you got a guy with just the right mentality. The biggest thing right now when I try to take a step back and look at it, in our quarterback meeting room and our practice on the field we have just the right kind of guys that we want as far as their character, their competitiveness, their mental ability, their decision-making, and I think the sky’s the limit.”
With 55 seconds left, a 27-yard field goal by Drew Jarrett, who rejoined the team this year after giving up football in 2011, provided the winning points for the Orange team.
With Lambert at QB, the Blue team took over on its 25 after Jarrett’s field goal. Blue advanced only 10 yards before turning the ball over on downs.
Even so, Lazor said, “I think Greyson’s doing great. If you come to practice and you watch the beginning of practice, you can see the physical ability, how the ball comes out of his hand. He’s strong in the legs, so he can drop and do all the things that we want him to do.
“The hardest thing for him today was probably the two-minute drill at the end, which is usually one of those last things to come. We talked about it, and I prepped him for it, because I knew that he’d be playing at the end of the game, and he was either going to be taking a knee or doing a two-minute drill. It was good for him to have to be out there and to do it, and to understand what the tempo is and what the pressure’s going to be like on him when he’s out there, and that’s the only way you learn at that spot.”
In UVa’s 2011 finale, a 43-23 loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Rocco passed for a career-high 312 yards and two touchdowns. London said he’s seen more progress this spring from Rocco, a rising junior, especially on intermediate throws.
Virginia will continue to get the ball to Jones and other running backs on short patterns, London said, but “if we can throw the ball deep, you have a chance to throw the intermediate routes and then definitely throw the underneath stuff, and I think Mike has taken his game to another level. He’s been making those kind of throws.”
Lazor said: “A lot of the explosive plays are going to come from the intermediate routes, and I’d like to be better than anyone in the country at throwing it between 15 and 25 yards deep. It is hard to complete it 40 yards down the field. We tried a few today. It’s hard, and it takes work. It’s a little easier in that 15- to 25-yard range, and sometimes it’s even easier when you throw it short, but you have to look at [those passes and] say, ‘What are we getting out of this?’
“We want to be able to put the ball all over the field, and it takes the position players who are running routes being trustworthy. They’ve got to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. And if they prove in practice that they’ll do that, then the quarterback will throw it before they’re open, and then it all times up. But if either side is off, if the route-runners aren’t where they’re supposed to be, if the quarterback’s timing is off, then it’s an incomplete. Or if it’s a deep ball, it just turns into a long fly ball to the warning track. But we gotta hit on more of those, and I think we’re getting there. [Before] the Auburn game, we had a little extra practice time, and so I think it started to show up in the first half of that game, that we were getting the ball down the field a little more on our play-actions. I expect that to continue.”
“I don’t think we got enough passing production out of our tight end position last year,” Lazor said. “You heard me say that [early in the spring], and now today you saw us work on it. So we’re getting there.”
In the 6-5 McGee, a special-teams standout as a redshirt freshman in 2011, the Wahoos appear to have a tight end capable of stretching the field.
“Jake is more of a speed guy,” Watford said.
Lazor said: “Jake is a guy who can run. There’s no doubt he can run fast.”
No Cavalier looked faster Saturday than rising sophomore Khalek Shepherd, the team’s No. 4 tailback. Shepherd’s 75-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter pulled the Blue team to 17-16, and then Ian Frye’s extra point tied the game.
Terrell, who struggled as a true freshman last season, showed off his speed Saturday, too, gaining 61 yards on his three receptions. After the game, Terrell received a Rock Weir Award as the offense’s most improved player. (The Rock Weir Award for defense went to tackle Will Hill, a rising senior.)
“It means a lot to me,” Terrell said. “Last year I didn’t have a really good season. So this year coming into the spring I knew I had to improve a lot, so getting that award is a good honor.”
Rocco said: “Dom was a little bit nervous last year, and you could tell a little bit. He was just thinking a little too much. This spring he came out as one of the leaders in the receiving corps, and he’s really shown it, and he’s stepped up, and I’m looking forward to him making big plays for us this year.”
To Lazor, the “No. 1 difference in Dominique is confidence, and it’s hard to manufacture confidence in a player. [Terrell’s] transition from quarterback in high school to receiver last year at times looked awkward for me. At times you looked at him, like when he caught that screen pass and ran for a touchdown in the overtime win [against] Idaho, and we said, ‘Hey, the ability, the quickness, the explosion, we see it. It’s all there.’ And then sometimes he just didn’t look comfortable.”
Between the end of the 2011 season and the start of spring ball, however, Terrell “changed himself,” Lazor said. “From the first practice it showed up. And the No. 1 thing was just a confidence level. He came out and you could just tell, he said, ‘I’m going to do this thing, I’m going to be a player,’ and I think it’s showed up, and I’m excited about his future.”
“It’s not just me,” Reynolds said. “A lot of guys helped me get here, a lot of the older guys I’ve talked to and the guys on my team now, and every day we continue to push each other and get each other better. Now I have to take that next step and take on a bigger role, and I think I’m ready to do that. It’s just a blessing, and I thank Coach London for putting his faith in me to be a team captain.”