Virginia Coach Mike London’s announcement Monday that sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco will start Saturday’s season opener against Division 1-AA William & Mary finally ended the speculation over who would succeed Marc Verica.
Now for the new question: What, exactly, do Cavaliers fans have in their new starting quarterback?
Well, Virginia coaches remark on how cerebral Rocco is. They laud his knowledge of Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor’s system and his ability to absorb scheme material quickly. The word teammates most often use to describe Rocco: Consistent.
At the same time, Rocco is not known for possessing a particularly strong arm, and in an effort to always make the most appropriate decision based on the play call, there are times when Rocco holds onto the ball too long in the pocket.
Here, then, are three strengths and weaknesses that Rocco will carry into his first season as a Division 1-A starting quarterback:
Strength – Intelligence. Rocco’s father, uncle and grandfather are lifelong football coaches, so he’s been around the game in some capacity from a very early age. His older brother, Chris, the one Michael used to always follow around, played football at Liberty and now is a high school football coach. To be sure, Michael Rocco understands the game about as well as any other college sophomore out there. Frank Rocco, Michael’s father and high school coach, ran a pro-style offense at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg – albeit a more streamlined version of the one Lazor orchestrates at Virginia – so Michael had a foundational knowledge of the system when he arrived on campus last year.
Weakness – Decision-making. It’s one thing to know what the proper choice is. It’s an entirely different thing to be able to act on that knowledge quickly. Rocco has not shown himself to be much of a risk-taker thus far, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Rocco sometimes takes too long to deliver the ball because he is somewhat conservative in his decision-making. Now, part of that could be a byproduct of inexperience. He’s only played in six games at the college level, and sparingly at that. Perhaps more experience in live game situations will help Rocco grow more accustomed to making correct decisions more efficiently.
Strength – Toughness. During a scrimmage before his senior year of high school, Rocco was tackled after a play had been whistled dead. He stuck out his left arm to brace the fall and ended up suffering a buckle fracture in his forearm and dislocating his wrist. A metal plate and nine screws were surgically inserted to repair the damage. That plate and those screws remain in his left forearm to this day. He said he can still feel it when he’s lifting weights. Despite having nerve damage that didn’t fully heal until months after the football season ended, Rocco returned to the field after missing five games and led LCA to the state title game. As talented as Virginia’s offensive line is, Rocco’s probably going to take his share of hits this season – especially until he grows more accustomed to the speed at which he needs to make decisions in the pocket – but he’s got the fortitude to endure some pain.
Weakness – Arm strength. To be clear, on short- to mid-range passes, Rocco can get the ball to its intended target with plenty of zip. But when asked to throw the ball further downfield, the accuracy and zip begin to tail off. This is an issue with redshirt sophomore quarterback Ross Metheny too. Of the four quarterbacks, true freshman David Watford and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss have the strongest passing arms. Lazor’s offense is not heavily dependent on deep throws; he’d prefer the Cavaliers be great at executing passes in the 10-20-yard intermediate range. Still, Rocco’s arm strength leaves something to be desired.
Strength – Consistency. Rocco’s coaches and teammates know what they’ll get out of their starting quarterback. He is reliable in his consistency, and that can help an offense get on the same page, especially in a timing-based scheme such as the one Lazor employs. With a skilled offensive line, a speed and talent infusion at the skill positions and another year under Lazor’s tutelage under his belt, Rocco is in a position where all he needs to do is exactly what’s asked of him. No more; no less. He has to guide the offense, not carry it on his back. At this point, the coaches clearly believe Rocco is the Virginia quarterback best suited to do that.
Weakness – Assertiveness. Rocco is reserved by nature, more of a lead by example guy than someone who will get in a teammate’s face to try to make a point. That’s not meant as a criticism, but a statement of fact. But as the starting quarterback, Rocco will have to come out of his shell more, and perhaps he will. Again, he’s a true sophomore. He’s played limited snaps in all of six games in college. There’s still plenty of time for him to develop as a vocal leader. But, at least for now, he’ll need some help in that regard, and his teammates are aware of that.
“I wouldn’t say that he’s not a vocal leader,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said Monday. “He’s definitely a vocal leader. But just as far as if some of the older guys screw up, we’ll deal with it ourselves more than he’ll step out and say something about it. We’re going to help him as older guys on this team to help him lead the team in the right direction.”