Aug. 28, 2012

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE – The University of Virginia football team opened the 2010 season against the Richmond Spiders at Scott Stadium, and quarterback Michael Rocco was in uniform on the home sideline that September day.

Back then, though, Rocco was a true freshman who would not make his college debut for another three weeks, and his uncle Danny Rocco was head coach at Liberty University.

UVa and UR meet again Saturday at Scott Stadium in the season-opener for both teams, and much has changed in each program since that 2010 game. Michael Rocco, a 6-3, 225-pound junior, is about to make his 14th straight start for the Cavaliers, who are coming off an 8-5 season, and Danny Rocco, a former Virginia assistant, is set to make his debut as the Spiders’ head coach.

“It’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be competitive, and that’s what it always is in the Rocco family,” Michael Rocco told reporters Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.

About 45 minutes earlier, third-year coach Mike London had released the depth chart for his team’s opener, and it confirmed what had become evident over the course of training camp — Rocco is ahead of the Cavaliers’ other quarterbacks: sophomores Phillip Sims and David Watford and true freshmen Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns.

Rocco “has the best grasp of the offense right now,” London said. “To start a game, he’s the guy we feel most comfortable with right now because of what he knows — knowing the systems, the schemes and knowing the players that he’ll be throwing the ball to or handing the ball off to.

“He’s done nothing to lose his position. He’s improved. We talked earlier about his leadership, his knowledge of the offense.”

Sims, who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 academic year, is listed as Rocco’s backup. Sims, a former star at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, is still learning offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system, and to “expect him to know the whole offense by the time the season started, I don’t think that would be fair to him,” London said.

Watford, Rocco’s backup as a true freshman last season, is No. 3 on the depth chart. He’s likely to sit out this fall, as are Lambert and Johns.

“I have the right to reserve whether or not we’ll use David or not through the year,” London said, “but my plans are to redshirt him.”

Rocco and Watford are close friends, and their battles for the starting job have not changed that.

“We just have a lot of experiences together,” Rocco said, “and so I root for David as hard as I root for any of my other teammates.

“I really believe that Coach London has a plan for David and the plan’s going to be the best for him. I’m excited to see what Dave has in store at UVa, but right now I believe Coach London has a great plan, and Coach Lazor as well.”

In 2011, Rocco and Watford split time for the first seven games. 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.

Against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Rocco 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.

Even after Sims, one of the greatest quarterbacks in Virginia High School League history, transferred to UVa and was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, Rocco’s confidence in himself didn’t waver.

“I’m in this thing to win it,” he told reporters at UVa’s media day early this month.

A graduate of Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Rocco had played well during spring practice and figured it “was my job to lose,” he said Monday. “But I root for Phil and David as hard as I can. They’re both teammates of mine, and I would never want anything bad to happen in their career and their life, but I believe that I’m here to play quarterback and I’m here to play quarterback at a high level.”

Rocco said he’s “light years ahead of where” he was at this time last year, “and that just makes me way more confident to go in and execute in the game. It’s just repetitions, and I went through a season as the starter, every game, and then into the spring and into the summer, and right now I have a pretty good grasp of the offense. You can never gain enough knowledge, but right now I feel confident in our game plan and what Coach Lazor and Coach London want me to do.”

During the first half of last season, Watford usually would enter games at times predetermined by Lazor and London. The coaching staff will use look for opportunities to use Sims, London said, but his appearances won’t be scripted.

“There’s no formula right now to say what series he’s going in,” London said.

Rocco would no doubt prefer to take every snap, but he said he’s not worried about having to split time with Sims.

“My mentality coming down into this thing is, I’m the quarterback,” Rocco said. “I have the same mentality I had last year. Just my confidence from being in the offense a year and knowing what I have to do to compete and compete at a high level, I just believe that’ll carry me. My team is confident in me, and the coaching staff is confident in me. I’m really not looking over my shoulder to be tentative about somebody behind him.”

London met with Watford, a former Hampton High star who enrolled at UVa in January 2011, before releasing the depth chart.

“His physical skills are such [that] I think David is going to be a terrific quarterback,” London said. “He concedes that Michael knows the offense better than he does right now. He sees that there’s a talent Phillip has.”

London said he raised the possibility of a position change with Watford, one of the team’s fastest players.

“He said, `I will, Coach, if you want me to, whatever the team needs,’ ” London told reporters. “He said, `I’d like to be a quarterback.’ ”

Watford appeared in 10 games last season. He completed 30 of 74 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions.

“We played David early as a freshman … because we had to,” London said. “He’s a guy now that, because of him giving to the team, I want to make sure that we do right by him as well.”

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