Stop the ride

Virginia may find its man in Matt Johns


On a day that was supposed to be a starting point in the Heisman campaign for UCLA junior quarterback Brett Hundley, the real story was shaped by a player no one expected: Matt Johns.

Though Hundley undoubtedly played well, it was the Cavalier sophomore who stole the show Saturday, giving 44,000 people in Scott Stadium a glimmer of hope for the 2014 season.

Most of Virginia’s issues in the recent past have stemmed from inconsistencies at the quarterback position. Performances by Cavalier gunslingers been less than impressive, and they’ve proven consistently unable to maintain the starting job.

In the past three seasons, five different quarterbacks have come and gone in the Cavalier’s starting lineup. Two years ago was an absolute circus, with Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco trading off not just starts but series and even plays. This quarterback carousel has made it nearly impossible for the offense to find any sort of rhythm — and Virginia’s 2012 record reflected it.

That disappointing 4-8 season left the Cavalier coaching staff choosing between two options, neither desirable. Both players underperformed, especially the highly-touted Sims who failed to ever fully grasp the squad’s playbook.

The situation was handled poorly, and ultimately contributed to Rocco’s departure from the program. After announcing his decision to leave, the current Richmond Spiders quarterback — who left Virginia ranked 8th all-time in passing yards — said it was “hard to feel confident” with the system that was in place.

A year later, Virginia gave the starting job to David Watford. But despite a promising start with a win against a tough Brigham Young team, the Cavaliers offense again sputtered, averaging less than 20 points per game in a disastrous 2-10 season.

Again Virginia suffered from an identity crisis, as the coaching staff increasingly opted to rotate Watford and newcomer Greyson Lambert. Production proved an issue once again, and rotating quarterbacks only compounded the offensive woes that plagued the Cavaliers.

As Rocco said, it’s hard to build confidence when you feel your job is constantly being threatened, even during games.

When spring ball came around, it was Lambert who had been tapped to be the man in charge of Virginia’s offense — less than surprising, given Watford’s performance last year. But much to the dismay of many Cavalier fans, there was still talk of packages specifically for the senior, hinting that this season would be more of the same.

Saturday, there was no rotation of quarterbacks, though two men did take the field. This time however, things seemed to be different. After an error-ridden start by Lambert — spotlighted by two pick-sixes — London shocked Scott Stadium by sending in Johns, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound sophomore from Chalfont, Pennsylvania.

In the Spring Game, Johns was the third-string quarterback behind both Lambert and Watford. He went 6-of-19 for just 43 yards, but threw no interceptions — in contrast to the two thrown by both Lambert and Watford. The performance certainly did not give any indication he would be playing against the No. 7 team in the nation.

But when his number was called, the sophomore made the most of the opportunity. He immediately sparked the stagnant Cavalier offense with two deep passes — producing Virginia’s first touchdown of the new season.

Johns looked confident both in the pocket and on the move Saturday and appeared cool under pressure. What’s more, he was able to throw the ball down the field and even completed a pair of deep fourth-down conversions to keep the Cavaliers’ comeback hopes alive.

Whether offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild decided to open up the playbook for him, or Johns just had the confidence to make the throws that Lambert did not, is unclear. Regardless, the results were undoubtedly encouraging for Cavalier fans.

Though this game could be nothing but an anomaly for the season, it seems to me Virginia has found its man for for 2014. Johns has never played a collegiate snap behind center, yet he was thrown into a defensive slugfest against a top-10 defense and performed incredibly well.

Only time will tell what the Cavaliers have in the sophomore, but it looks like this three-year carousel ride may finally be coming to an end.

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