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Aug. 22, 2014

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This is the ninth and final installment of a series in which breaks down the 2014 football team by position.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Over the past five seasons, University of Virginia quarterbacks have thrown nearly as many interceptions (73) as touchdown passes (77) while completing a modest 56.4 percent of their attempts.

Not coincidentally, UVa’s record during that span is 21-40.

With David Watford as their starting quarterback, the Cavaliers finished 2-10 last season. Watford, a redshirt junior, is back this year, but the starter coming out of spring practice was Greyson Lambert, and the redshirt sophomore from Jesup, Ga., has tightened his grip on the job during training camp this month.

“I’m really happy with what Greyson’s doing,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said this week at Lambeth Field. “Very pleased.”

Even better for the Wahoos, the top two backups, Watford and redshirt sophomore Matt Johns, have impressed during training camp as well.

“I think we’re playing well at the spot,” Fairchild said. “We’re light years ahead of where we were [in 2013], even at the end of last season. I’m happy with our consistency. We can get more consistent, but we’re not as up and down as we were last year.”

That Virginia’s wide receivers have distinguished themselves this month, too, has helped the quarterbacks immensely. Inconsistency marked the wideouts’ play last season, and Watford’s final passing line (244 of 427, 2,202 yards, eight TDs, 15 interceptions) would have been better had his receivers not dropped so many balls.

Marques Hagans, a former standout at quarterback for UVa, is in his second year as wide receivers coach at his alma mater.

Wideouts can always make the quarterback’s “job easier,” Hagans said, “and I think at times last year we really didn’t do that. Some of the blame, I believe, was unfair on the quarterbacks last year, because I felt at times we could have helped the quarterback out a lot more. But that was last year, and we’re focusing on this year.”

So are the coaches.

In 2013, Fairchild recalled, Watford “coming out of spring ball was, we felt as a coaching staff, our best chance to win. And we didn’t play well enough at the quarterback spot last year, so we went into the spring opening it up and making it a competition … Greyson just had a tremendous offseason, and clearly he’s the starting quarterback.”

Lambert’s final stats for 2013 were not impressive – 33 of 75 passing for 340 yards and one TD, with two picks – but he played well against ACC foes North Carolina and Miami late in the season. In the season finale, he completed only 4 of 16 passes (for 54 yards) against a stout Virginia Tech defense, but Lambert returned to Charlottesville in January determined to elevate his game, and he has succeeded.

“Across the board, No. 1, he’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s faster,” said Fairchild, who joined UVa’s staff in January 2013. “He had a tremendous offseason that way.

“Greyson is a very talented quarterback. He can make every throw, and he’s a big, strong guy, but when we got him last spring, and into last August, he was in no way, shape or form ready to play [at the college level]. He came from such a basic offense in high school, he was just learning coverages and how to call a play.

“But he is a very hard-working guy. It’s very, very important to him, and since I’ve been here he’s just studied and wanted more and more and more. You could see last January when they came back to school, in his mind he was going to be the starting quarterback, and it was going to be a no-brainer.”

Lambert said he “came back from Christmas holidays with that mindset that I wanted to be the guy. I wanted it, I wanted it badly, so I just tried to approach every day that way.

“It’s just been my mindset since I got here. I feel like everyone who goes to college to play football or any sport goes there to compete and wants to start. And so that was my mindset since I got here, but I felt like it was time for me to grow up in a sense and really say, `It’s up to you if you want to do it.’ I just knew it was time to work when I got back.”

Asked what changed in his approach, Lambert said, “I think the biggest thing for me was that I needed to focus less on me and more on how I can help the players around me. Whatever I can do to help this team win, that was what I needed to do. And whenever I took the focus off myself and put it all on my teammates and this team, that’s when everything started to come together.”

Fairchild said: “If you watch him now, he’s a lot more consistent. You’ll see him making more plays throwing the football, you’ll see him commanding the offense. In that respect, he’s quicker at making decisions, because he’s just played a little bit and he has better feel for it.”

That comes from experience, said Lambert, who enrolled at the University in January 2012 and redshirted that fall. This time last summer, he had never taken a snap in a college game.

“I knew that I wanted to play [last season], but looking back on it, I can tell that I wasn’t ready,” he said, “and I can tell that looking back on it now I’m head over heels different when it comes to the mental side of things than I was a year ago, and I expect to be head over heels different next year, and the year after that.

“It’s that experience and the progress I was able, I guess, to make during practice all last year, when it comes to game knowledge, where to go with the football, on time, what looks are the defense giving me, how is that going to change my read and all that kind of stuff, and that’s really been the biggest difference.”

Not since Hagans was the team’s starting quarterback, in 2004 and ’05, have the `Hoos benefited from consistently productive play at that position. Lambert is unfamiliar with UVa’s quarterback woes before he enrolled, and he’s not interested in looking to the past.

“All I’ve been doing is trying to do whatever I can do to help everyone on this team be successful,” he said. “Whatever role I can play in that, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

Lambert’s role in the offense has been well-defined in training camp. As the Aug. 30 opener against UCLA approaches, though, Fairchild has not settled on a No. 2 quarterback.

“It would depend on the situation,” he said, “but I’m really happy with both David and Matt.”

Watford, having lost his starting job, wants to get it back, but the relationship among the quarterbacks, Lambert said, remains positive.

“It never has been uncomfortable,” he said, “and the thing is that all last year, on every home game, away game, I roomed with David in the hotel. We’re best friends. And I’m rooming with Matt Johns in the Cavalier Inn [during training camp], and we’re best friends. That whole quarterback meeting room, every guy in there, we’re all very close, and we love to hang out with each other. We love to cut up and have fun. When we’re on the field we’re going to be competing, but off the field, none of that carries over. We love each other.”

A look at the Cavaliers’ scholarship quarterbacks, by class:

* No. 5, David Watford (6-2, 210-pound junior, Hampton). Michael Rocco’s backup as a true freshman in 2011, Watford redshirted in ’12 and then won the starting job last year. On a team that finished 2-10, the former Hampton High standout threw nearly twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (eight). Watford, who also rushed for three touchdowns, attempted 427 passes, a single-season record at UVa.

* No. 11, Greyson Lambert (6-5, 235-pound sophomore, Jesup, Ga.). As a redshirt freshman last season, he backed up Watford and played in seven games. For the season, he completed only 44 percent of his passes (33 of 75) for 340 yards and one TD, with two interceptions. His best performances came against ACC rivals North Carolina and Miami. In those games, Lambert was a combined 21-of-32 passing for 209 yards and one TD.

* No. 15, Matt Johns (6-5, 210-pound sophomore, Chalfont, Pa.). Virginia’s starting holder on extra points and field goals, Johns appeared in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season. In his only appearance at quarterback, against VMI, he did not attempt a pass.

* No. 16, Brendan Marshall (6-5, 230-pound redshirt freshman, Gaithersburg, Md.). As a senior in 2012, Marshall completed 102 of 172 passes for 1,375 yards and seven TDs to help Good Counsel High finish11-1. He also averaged 36.5 yards on 37 punts. UVa teammates Vincent Croce, Kirk Garner and Andre Levrone also graduated from Good Counsel.

* No. 3, Corwin Cutler (6-4, 195-pound true freshman, Virginia Beach). In 2012, a serious knee injury prematurely ended his final season at Ocean Lakes High. Even so, Cutler, whose nickname is Turtle, still passed for 2,232 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior, with only four interceptions, while completing 69.6 percent of his throws. He spent the 2013-14 academic year at Fork Union Military Academy, where he played for the postgraduate team. He’s expected to redshirt this season.

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