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October 16, 2013With Virginia's early-season struggles on offense, Mike London and his coaching staff have looked for ways to shake up the plan of attack and in some cases, change the personnel.
Although the Cavaliers have made changes on the offensive line and at wide receiver, quarterback David Watford has been trusted to right the ship for the Wahoos. And in the last couple of games, the Hampton native is showing steady improvement.
In his fourth career start at Pittsburgh on September 28, Watford had his worst outing of the season. The redshirt sophomore signal caller completed just 40.5 percent of his passes, throwing for 123 yards and failing to reach the end zone. He also mishandled a snap deep in his own territory, which led to a turnover and eventually a Panther touchdown.
The following week, in a 48-27 loss at home to Ball State, Watford showed improvement. He passed for 209 yards and moved the ball considerably better than the offense did in any other games this season against FBS competition. He even had a highlight-worthy touchdown run from 27 yards where he leaped for the goal line and just barely broke the plane.
This past weekend on the road against Maryland, Watford had the best game of his short career. Completing 27 of 44 passing attempts, he set a career high in passing yardage (263), rushed for 34 yards on seven attempts, and was credited with an impressive touchdown on a heads-up, self-aware play that was drew the respect of even his harshest critics.
It's no coincidence that in having his best game of the year Watford also had his first turnover-free outing of the season.
With six career starts under his belt, Watford is still getting a feel for the college game but he is feeling more comfortable every time he goes on the field.
"I feel like week to week, my confidence is rising," Watford said this week. "With each game I'm able to see defenses better, the game is slowing down for me more. Coach [Steve] Fairchild is showing more confidence in me in the play calls. I feel like it's just getting better."
Watford can tell the difference from the beginning of the season until now and feels that the more experience he gets in Fairchild's offense, the more he'll be able to dictate the game to the opposing defenses.
"When the game slows down you're able to see things before they happen and it just becomes, easier and easier and easier," he added.
Before taking the reigns of the Cavaliers' offense this season, Watford took a redshirt in 2012 as he sat and watched now departed quarterbacks Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims. Though he learned a lot by watching from the sidelines and working out with the scout team, there really is no substitute for live game experience.
He's grateful he was able to get some experience as a freshman, when he played in just about every game, before being charged with commanding the offense this year.
"I made some mistakes but I was able to learn from those mistakes and continue to grow," Watford said of his playing experience in 2011. "That's the most important thing at the end of the day, just continued growth and learning the game."
There's no doubt that turnovers, and specifically interceptions, have plagued him during the first part of this season. A big part of his continued improvement has been his ability to cut down on those errors.
Of his seven interceptions on the season, all but one came in the first three games. Since then, the former Crabber has thrown just one. The starting quarterback has an ultimatum from the coaching staff to play with maximum effort, and not be afraid to make a mistake here or there.
"Coach London stressed the whole week, 'If you make a mistake do it 100 miles per hour, just go out there play your game, and leave it all on the field', and I felt like I did that," Watford said of Saturday's results in College Park.
One big part of Virginia's early-season struggles on offense was the fact that Watford has not had a ton of help from his wide receiving core and nobody really became his "go to guy." That seems to have changed, after Jake McGee re-emerged for the Cavaliers against Maryland.
The junior tight end led UVa with eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown grab. Watford and McGee have built a great relationship off the field and that connection could be big for Virginia's passing game going forward into the second half of this season.
"He's a big target, he's fast, he catches the ball well," Watford explained. "Jake and I, we've put in a lot of time off the field. We spent a lot of time in the offseason around each other, just building that chemistry off the field as well as on the field.
"I have a lot of trust in "The Kid" and he trusts me as well. It's been there the whole time and we've just been waiting to show it on the field."
Watford has been consistently praised by his teammates and coaches for his leadership and preparation in game weeks. When he sat out last season, he saw a team that had issues in those two areas come apart, losing six straight games en route to its second 4-8 record in three seasons.
Now that he's one of the vocal leaders, Watford said he knows the type of attitude the team must have from week to week, regardless of results.
"As a team we just have to stick together," he said. "That was really one of the things last year, as things went south, guys started to fall apart and you could see it. When it turned bad everything went bad. Football isn't an easy sport. You've got to keep fighting, keep pushing.
"We have the guys to do that and guys really buy into that idea. I can take the effort from that Maryland game any time. We made mistakes, we didn't play our best game but we fought, that's the most important thing. We can correct the mistakes and build off of that stuff but that's the type of effort we have to bring to every game."
Although the effort was there, the result was not. With the season in the balance, Watford is motivated by the team's struggles to turn the momentum of the program around and find ways to win. A player who is motivated to improve, Watford began that process right after the final seconds ticked off at Byrd Stadium, on what was surely a long, solemn trip back to Charlottesville.
"That bus ride definitely was silent," he recalled. "Nobody talked. I sat back there in the back, had my headphones on watching the film the whole time, looking at the plays, stuff we could've or should've done.
"That taste is something we'll just have to keep in the back of our heads. We really were that close to winning that game. We have to remember every single play, every single rep that we get, every single drill we do, that feeling we felt when we walked off the field with that loss."