Virginia Coach Mike London acknowledged Monday that he had saddled true freshman quarterback David Watford with too many in-game responsibilities at this stage in the player’s career and that he had grown concerned that Watford’s recent experiences were affecting the player’s confidence.
London made these statements as a means of explaining his decision to scale back Watford’s playing time at least for the near future as the Cavaliers (4-3, 1-2 ACC) try to secure at least two wins in their final five games and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.
Beginning with Thursday night’s game at Miami (4-3, 2-2), Virginia will not implement a pre-scripted quarterback rotation, London said. Rather, the Cavaliers will start sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco and utilize Watford only in limited doses.
“I’m mindful of a young player like David that has a tremendous amount talent, is going to be a good player here, but I don’t want to put him in a situation where you try to wrestle with the ballgame on his shoulders or every decision, every throw, every check, every play call is something that he’s being scrutinized for,” London said. “So in order to take some of that off his plate, I’ve decided to make sure that his role in the offense is one that can provide him a level of success, because he still has to go to class here. He still has to be a lot of things other than just a quarterback for this team.
“And so we are going to go down that route the next five games here, hopefully six games, and we’ll continue to keep developing him and feel much better about him being developed now with the opportunities that he’s had, been in games, has made big throws, made big runs. But you know, for his continued development, we want to make sure that we limit his role a little bit more and let him watch, let him absorb, let him learn, let him play and let him play at the right opportunities.”
Watford has appeared in each of Virginia’s first seven games. In three of the Cavaliers’ past four contests, he has seen extensive playing time, particularly in the second half. On Saturday, during Virginia’s 28-14 loss to N.C. State, Watford led Virginia’s offense for nine series (eight in the second half) and completed 4 of 16 passes for 89 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
On the season, Watford has completed 42.3 percent of his passes and thrown for 346 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
“We are all human beings that feel like if something bad happens in the game, that, ‘Oh, man, I’m the cause of that happening,’” London said. “And you talk about the psychology of dealing with a young guy, I continue to keep talking about the things that (Watford) is, the things that he can be, the things that he’s going to be.
“I’m kind of the eternal optimist, basically, the way I look at things, and to be fair to him, for a young man to think that he lost the game and shouldered the game of an entire perhaps game or turn of a season, I’m not going to allow him to have that type of a decision. I’ll make the decision that I want be you to be a student athlete. I want to you not feel like you’ve got to win everything and relish the role that we are going to give you and hopefully, with a few wins, that maybe there’s an extra opportunity afforded you to get better as a quarterback.”
It would appear that Rocco will possess, almost exclusively, the offense’s reins in the near future. Obviously, that would change if Rocco suffered an injury or became ineffective. But it’s clear London and his staff believe that Rocco is the quarterback most capable at this point of helping the Cavaliers construct a strong finish to their season.
London said he believes Watford is “at peace with” the coach’s decision to reduce the player’s role for the time being. Watford still will see playing time, but only in circumstances in which the coaching staff believes there’s a high likelihood of success and of Watford coming away from the experience with confidence in what he executed.
“I think it was important for David to have experienced what he he’s experienced right now on the field and the opportunities that we had to evaluate him and assess him in games, in situations,” London said. Watford “wanted to do well, could have done well, and then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But he didn’t, and he tried.
“And like I said, now it’s time to make sure that this young man doesn’t continue to experience the weight of the world on his shoulders, that we try to provide opportunities for him that this was a good season for you and this is a good learning curve for you, and you’ll get better at this because you’ve been in games, you’ve made big plays, big throws, big runs. I think he’ll become a better player from this experience.”
London was an assistant on former Virginia Coach Al Groh’s staff in 2003 when true freshman Anthony Martinez started the second game of the season at South Carolina. Martinez completed 10 of 20 passes for 54 yards that day. He threw two interceptions and was sacked twice. That game “didn’t go well for (Martinez), and that didn’t bode well for his confidence,” London said. Martinez played in one more game that year before giving up football three weeks into the following season.
In regards to Watford, London would prefer to avoid a similar collapse of confidence. So for now, London will have Watford take one step back in the hopes that such a developmental pause will lead to many steps forward in the future.
“We talked to all the quarterbacks, and all of them have role and they will continue to have a role, but I’m worried about David Watford as an individual,” London said. “Some people want him out there, just throw him out there and let him play. As we have gotten to this point and evaluated where we are with him and his development, he’ll have opportunities, but not as the opportunities have been presented thus far.”