By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had no trouble getting all of his quarterbacks enough work during spring practice. There were only three of them: junior Michael Rocco, who started every game last season; sophomore David Watford, who was the backup; and true freshman Greyson Lambert, who enrolled at UVa in January.
When training camp starts in early August, Lazor will face a bigger challenge. He’ll be dividing snaps among five scholarship quarterbacks: Rocco, Watford, Lambert, Matt Johns and Phillip Sims.
That Johns, who’s finishing up his senior year at Central Bucks High in Pennsylvania, would be in the mix has been known for nearly a year. He committed to UVa last June.
Sims, a graduate of Chesapeake’s Oscar Smith High, is a late addition. He announced this week that he’s transferring to UVa from Alabama, where he was the No. 2 quarterback on the nation’s top team as a redshirt freshman last season.
When Sims will be able to play for head coach Mike London’s Cavaliers is unclear. A member of his family is ill, and Sims is planning to apply to the NCAA for a hardship waiver that, if approved, would make him eligible this season.
“The reason for me leaving is nothing more than a personal matter,” Sims said in a statement released by Alabama last week. “I just need to be closer to home to support my family at this time and that needs to be my priority right now.”
Sims will be able to take part in the summer training program overseen by Evan Marcus, UVa’s director of strength and conditioning for football. Not until practice starts in August, however, will Lazor, also the Wahoos’ quarterbacks coach, be allowed to work with Sims. Between now and then, Sims will try to familiarize himself with Lazor’s offense and the playbook.
“The most important time really will be this summer for Phillip, and the hard part is that he has to do a lot of that on his own,” Lazor said Thursday. “But there’s a lot of resources for him to study on his own, and some of it will be with our returning guys, and they’ll do a great job helping guide him through as much as they can.
“But he’s going to have to see how much he can get on his own and get prepared, and there are all kinds of videos and training tapes that our quarterbacks use to do their summer study, and that’ll help him a lot.
“That’ll be important for him, to kind of create a base, and then when training camp starts, it’ll be as much of an evaluation of where he is as it is just a real high-intensity teaching time for him.”
For the Crimson Tide, Sims appeared in eight games last season. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 163 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions.
“I know he’s been involved in college football at a very high level, so certainly I believe he’s going to bring in a lot of experience that’s going to help him,” Lazor said. “He’s played in games, and just like we’ve seen with Michael and David, once a guy’s played in games, their understanding and their ability to operate under pressure really increases at a high rate.”
Lazor has been on the road recruiting and has yet to meet Sims. But when the Cavaliers were recruiting a receiver who was a class behind Sims at Oscar Smith, Lazor said, “I saw video of Phillip throwing to him, and I thought Phillip was impressive in the film.”
In 2008, Sims’ junior year at Oscar Smith, his teammates included tailback Perry Jones and wide receiver Tim Smith, now starters at Virginia. The Tigers won the state Group AAA, Division 6 title that season. A four-year starter at Oscar Smith, Sims is the Virginia High School League’s career leader in passing yards (10.725) and touchdown passes (119).
Rocco, who completed 60.7 percent of his passes and threw for 2,671 yards in 2011, came out of spring practice as a clear No. 1. If Sims is eligible this year, Rocco may have to battle to retain the starting job. But Lazor doesn’t believe the added competition will hurt Rocco or the other returning quarterbacks.
“I don’t think it’s very different when you really stop and think about it,” Lazor said, “because David Watford’s a competitor, and David Watford would like to have been playing, and David Watford played at times with good success last year, and helped us win some. So I think if you’re Michael Rocco, you had David Watford sitting there trying to become the starting quarterback, and he’s a talented guy. So now, if this puts someone else in that same mix, in the big picture really how much has it changed? It’s added another name, but it’s not as though we weren’t trying to be the best we could be at all times anyway, and it doesn’t change David Watford’s approach.
“Certainly when the big news hits, I’m sure it causes a lot of people to turn their heads, whether they’re at the quarterback position or other positions, but I think when it comes down to it, our players know what we’re about as coaches, that we want the best for the team as well as for the players. We’ve always tried our best to create competition and let guys play it out on the field, and our quarterbacks, Michael and David, were able to have the success they had last year because of how we coached them. I think it’ll just keep going.
“Our players know what to expect from us as coaches. I think hopefully at this point they have enough trust in us that we’re going to do the right thing and handle situations the right away. I think Coach London’s proven that over time. I think they’ll be fine. Whether Phillip can play this year or not, I have no idea, and if in some way, big or small, it makes us a better team, certainly we’ll all be better for it.”
That said, Lazor acknowledged that he won’t be able to give all his quarterbacks equal snaps in training camp.
“You certainly can’t get five prepared to play, and we wouldn’t expect to,” Lazor said.
At every position, Lazor said, but especially at quarterback, “it’s a real big job determining how the reps will be divided up, because you’ve got to be prepared for that first game. That’s just kind of what you deal with every year: How do you get the guy that’s going to play in the first game ready to play the game? That’s the most important thing, and you juggle that and balance that [with knowing that all the quarterbacks] need to get reps to develop and get better. So you balance those two things with each other, and you try to come up with the best formula.”
Lazor looks forward to tutoring Sims. The reality, though, is that their work together won’t start in earnest until early August.
“That’s why I said Phillip is really going to have to get everything he can before training camp on his own,” Lazor said. “We have resources available for him to be able to do that, but it’s still not the same as being in there with the coach. It will be a little bit of a challenge for him, but it sounds like he’s ready for a new challenge.”