Rocco, Watford vie for starting job

As London continues to rotate quarterbacks, Virginia enters bye week questioning which passer deserves more snaps


After narrowly escaping Idaho last week in overtime, Virginia enters its bye week faced with a critical question: Rocco or Watford?

Virginia’s quarterback competition dominated preseason story lines until coach Mike London named sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco his game one starter. Rocco has since started all five games for the Cavaliers, but as freshman quarterback David Watford sees increased playing time, rumors of a controversy are resurfacing.

“We’re trying to find a rhythm with David [Watford] and with Michael [Rocco],” London said. “There are some good things and some bad things. We’re going to take a long look at this game with the open week that’s coming up.”

Watford attempted just 10 passes through the first three games of the season but has thrown 20 passes during each of the last two games, and Virginia’s coaches are committed to developing the freshman.

“I think early in the year we felt like David had to play,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “For example, in the Indiana game that meant three plays. We [went in against Idaho] saying that he would play two series for certain.”

Recently, Watford has played more than just those predetermined two series – he has taken snaps during some of Virginia’s most critical possessions.

Two weeks ago against Southern Mississippi, Rocco threw three interceptions, injured his rib and exited the game trailing by eight points. Watford assumed control under center and nearly claimed the win, orchestrating a key fourth-quarter touchdown drive and two-point conversion.

London repeated after the game that “Michael Rocco is the quarterback,” but the most recent game against Idaho implied that he is not the only one. London changed passers four times during the second half of that game and ultimately trusted Watford to lead the offense during overtime. The freshman did not disappoint, connecting with freshman wide receiver Dominique Terrell on a 27-yard touchdown pass.

“I told the offensive line that I was going to lead them down there and that we were going to score,” Watford said. “They had confidence and faith in me that I was going to get the ball in the end zone.”

Watford executed under pressure for the second straight week, and for the second straight week, he did so with his arm. Entering the season, London touted Watford’s athleticism and the perception remains that Watford is the team’s option for a scrambling quarterback. Lazor, however, cautions against those assumptions.

“Last week Mike had a touchdown run and David had a touchdown pass, so so much for the perception of who’s the pocket passer,” Lazor said. “I think people are wrong if they don’t realize that David has a chance to be a fine passer. I know I’ve heard David say that before and when people see him, for a multitude of reasons, they make judgments on what he is or can be, but David can be a fine passer.”

Just as Watford’s label as a rushing quarterback does not fully capture his skill set, Rocco’s tab as a purely passing quarterback is misleading. Rocco played safety in high school and is not afraid to flash his mobility in the pocket.

“I’ve always thought of myself as an athletic person, but I guess that’s a good thing being underrated,” Rocco said following a four-yard touchdown run against North Carolina. “They don’t really expect me to run the ball and it might open things up.”

Senior wide receiver Kris Burd has been a favorite target for both quarterbacks, and after posting a career-high 123 receiving yards last Saturday, he also downplayed the differences between each passer.

“As a receiver, we’re just in the huddle getting plays,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with both quarterbacks in and they can execute the offense the same.”

Although both quarterbacks can execute similar offensive schemes, their stat-lines reflect distinctive strengths and weaknesses. For Rocco, his completion percentage of 63.1 percent far surpasses Watford’s 50 percent mark. However, Rocco has also thrown seven interceptions and only two touchdowns this season, while Watford boasts the more favorable ratio with two touchdowns and one interception during more limited action.

Lazor said the coaching staff is not ready to comment on whether or not it will commit to one quarterback or continue to platoon the two.

“Having two quarterbacks who are developing and have a chance to be good players … it’s a good problem to have,” he said.

As for Rocco and Watford, the two remain in the dark about their respective positions on the depth chart.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen during the bye week,” Watford said. “[We’ll] just work hard like we’ve been doing.”

Watford said he thinks the competition between the two quarterbacks can be beneficial.

“Hopefully one day I’ll be the starter,” Watford said. “If they still keep Rocco as the starter, I’ll keep pushing him so he’ll get better too, and we’ll all get better collectively”

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