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July 25, 2012

Cavs face interesting questions at quarterback

As in life, there are no guarantees in major college athletics. And that is especially true these days for quarterbacks. The situation playing out at the University of Virginia is in many ways unique and at the same time a scene that unfolds on practice fields throughout the nation.

When Mike London and the Cavaliers arrive for training camp on August 6, they will do so with three quarterbacks who figure to be in the mix not just for playing time but to be "QB1": returning starter Michael Rocco, backup David Watford, and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims. (It's expected that both true freshmen, Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns, will redshirt.)

A quick tale of the tape says a lot about how this competition shapes up.

Rocco, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior from Lynchburg, is coming off arguably one of the best seasons a Virginia quarterback has ever had. At just 19, he was the youngest to ever start a game at QB in program history last season, a year during which he put up 2,671 passing yards. It's not only the best number ever by a first-year starter at UVa but also fourth best all time for a season. The former Lynchburg Christian standout passed for 13 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, completing 60.7 percent of his passes.

Watford, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound native of Hampton, was a true freshman who enrolled in January last year. The improvement he made from spring ball to the 2011 season was outstanding and he passed two others on the depth chart before it was all said and done. But his results were a mixed bag: He played in 10 games, passed for 346 yards on 30 attempts but had three touchdowns to four interceptions and completed just 40.5 percent of his passes.

The wildcard here, and the player that really is throwing a huge monkey wrench into the equation, is Sims. The strong-armed signal caller from Chesapeake signed with Alabama in the class of 2010. After redshirting his first year in Tuscaloosa, Sims played in eight games in 2011, compete 18 of 28 passes (64.3 percent) for 163 yards. He didn't throw a touchdown but did throw a pair of picks.

After being granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA, the former Bama quarterback is able to play right away for Virginia this fall and as the only one of the three who has already used his redshirt year, there's no doubt that he'll factor into the mix.

Though London said earlier this month that one of Rocco or Watford would likely redshirt this season, he was clear in talking to the media during the ACC's Kickoff event in Greensboro that Rocco is his starting quarterback entering camp.

Entering camp, though, isn't the same as entering the season opener.

"Mike is our starting quarterback going into camp," London explained. "He is our No. 1 quarterback. David's been in there, he knows the scheme and the system. The first part of pre-camp is to find out how much Phillip knows, how much he can recall, how much he can do from our system and our scheme.

"We call a lot of plays at the line of scrimmage so the first couple of practices, the evaluation will be important to see what he can do, what his aptitude level is, and his capability."

London recalled that when he returned to UVa, Marc Verica was a fifth-year senior and the only quarterback on the roster that had played in a game.

"And now we get to this point and it's like, 'You've got too many quarterbacks!' I'd rather have this issue to deal with," London said. "It's a good problem to have."

That problem has fractured many a team and London said he has been impressed with how Rocco has handled himself thus far.

"Michael has been very mature about it," London explained. "He welcomes the fact that there are skills and talent level of a lot of players that are coming into our program and if they make us better, they make us better. If they help us win, they help us win. He's prepared and he's said in the past that he's prepared to raise his level of competition to show that he's the guy.

"I know that all of them will be looked at to see how they can do and hopefully provide some sort of opportunities for us to win games."

As two of the team's five captains, linebacker Steve Greer and running back Perry Jones had similar viewpoints on the competition at quarterback that looms early next month. And they both say it won't be a controversy, at least within the team.

Greer said that one of his jobs is to help keep the team together, regardless of what may come. He said he believes his teammates understand that the competition at quarterback has the potential to be a negative but they don't plan on letting that happen.

"I just think we're about one thing and that's winning," he added. "As long as everyone is on that same page, we're alright."

Jones, a high school teammate of Sims' at Oscar Smith, said he knows his former QB has the tools.

"Phillip, he's a good quarterback," Jones said. "He has a strong arm. He's very accurate. He's a competitor. All qualities that you want to have. Coming out of high school as the number one or two quarterback in the nation, you have to be pretty special.

"He's a quarterback that works at his craft. He knows how to read defenses. A lot of college quarterbacks, they lag behind in that area. They throw where the coach tells them to instead of actually reading defenses and picking spots. And I think he's exceptional at that."

Jones and Sims talk a lot and had class together this summer, as Jones said he's trying to get the new Cavalier "used to the way we do things at Virginia." New teammates have "brought him in as if he's our brother and he's been there the whole time."

The way Rocco has welcomed Sims, Jones explained, has been impressive to the two-time captain.

"He's been great," Jones said of Rocco. "He's not only helping Phil out, he's improving himself. And I think that's a key thing. By teaching the offense to Phil, it's just confirming everything he already knows and building his confidence level. It's bringing the best out of him and he's developing as a quarterback, as a person, every day and guys on the team are starting to notice that."

From his vantage point as the team's starting running back, Jones said he's seen Rocco improve greatly in decision making.

"He's always had the tools to get the job done but early in the season, maybe his decision making was a little questionable," Jones noted. "I think he's going to do an even better job of that this year. He ended the season on a high note and I'm expecting him to start this season on an even higher note."

Both Greer and Jones know that the team will rely on them for as much leadership on the field as off. They both say they plan to be vocal and involved throughout the weeks leading up to camp so as to set the tone.

"I just think it's up to me to let the team know that we can't see it as a controversy," Jones added. "We've got to back all of our quarterbacks up because ultimately, whoever the starter is going to be is who the coaches think is best for the team. We don't know who it's going to be so we have to back all of them up so once that person is named, he already has the whole team behind him and that's going to give him a lot of confidence."

What was his own reaction to the news that Sims was headed to Charlottesville?

"I was kind of surprised," Jones admitted. "After that initial reaction, I was just ready to get to work. If he is that guy that we need to step up, then I just want him to know that we as a team have his back.

"He's a great competitor. And any competitor wants to be number one. He wants to be number one. Rocco wants to be number one. David Watford wants to be number one. That's what you want in a quarterback and it's ultimately going to make us better."

Greer said that there should be no issue this fall, regardless of who wins the job.

"We think competition's healthy at every position," he said. "There's really no animosity. We're all good friends. That's one thing about our team. We're really unified and have a cohesive unit."

Added Jones, "Rocco and Watford have taken Phil along right by their side. Watching film together, teaching him our route schemes. There's no animosity. Everybody wants everybody to succeed. In the end, we only have one goal and that's to win games."

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