Virginia Coach Mike London reiterated once again Wednesday that junior Michael Rocco would start his 18th straight game when the Cavaliers take on Louisiana Tech on Saturday. The question is whether Rocco will finish the game under center with Virginia facing a crucial week in terms of becoming eligible for a bowl game this year.
A quarterback controversy has been brewing in Charlottesville since redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims received a waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to play right away after transferring to Virginia from Alabama in June. And the clamoring from fans for Sims to assume the starting role reached new levels this week after the Cavaliers dropped their second straight game at TCU this past weekend.
This week, London has tried to move the spotlight on his offense’s struggles away from the quarterbacks and instead lay some of the blame on a supporting cast that hasn’t performed consistently this season, either. But he’s also very aware of the microscope his signal-callers must deal with these days.
“Phillip, he has something to prove also. Everyone’s looking at him,” London said this week. “The great thing about those guys is they are competitors and they understand that what is best for the team is best for the team, ultimately.”
Rocco’s sub-par play has opened the door for Sims, and he has completed 18 of his 29 pass attempts for 174 yards and three touchdowns. Sims also has a stronger arm and appears more mobile than Rocco, an interesting caveat given the struggles Virginia’s interior offensive linemen have encountered this year.
But most of Sims’s damage has been done in mop-up duty against Georgia Tech and TCU, and even then he has gotten away with several near-interceptions.
In his only meaningful action of the year, when London put him in for three series against Penn State, Sims orchestrated a three-and-out and then fumbled on his final snap of the game early in the fourth quarter, one of two turnovers he has committed. It’s the giveaways that have drawn London’s ire this week, regardless of what quarterback he’s discussing.
“Phillip is a talent that’s learning the offense and making some headway. He will garner some attention and consideration,” London said. “Both of them have to make the type of throws and eliminate the type of errors of interceptions and reads.”
What some fans viewed as an inevitable ascension for Sims has been slowed because he hasn’t yet mastered Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s scheme. London said this week the team still has to adjust its game plan to run certain plays that Sims is comfortable with whenever he’s in the game.
“Mike’s had three years of learning. Phillip’s had months of learning,” he added.
But in 12 career appearances at Alabama and Virginia, Sims has never taken every snap in a game. It begs the question of how he would do if given an entire week to prepare with the first team offense and didn’t have to worry about looking over his shoulder upon starting the game.
For now, though, everyone at Virginia is saying all the right things when it comes to this quarterback debate.
“It’s no uncertainty whether it’s Mike or Phil at the quarterback position, because both guys effectively run the offense,” said running back Khalek Shepherd, who also noted that Rocco and Sims are splitting the first team reps in practice.
“So whether it’s Phil or whether it’s Mike, we feel like we don’t lose not one step in the offense, so I know . . . our confidence doesn’t go down whether Mike is in or Phil is in. We just have two great quarterbacks that can run our offense effectively.”
But this issue has been much more divisive outside the program and it has clearly been a topic of discussion with the coaching staff this week. After weeks of definitively declaring Rocco the starter, London indicated Monday the Lynchburg native must improve to keep the job.
Rocco is the only starting quarterback in the ACC with more interceptions (5) than touchdown passes (4) right now, and facing a Louisiana Tech offense that hasn’t been held below 50 points yet this season — including a 52-24 win at Illinois last weekend — London and company realize their quarterback dilemma may have reached a tipping point this week.
“This is the type of game . . . that we’ll be able to tell a lot,” London said. “It’s going to be important that we throw the ball where it’s supposed to be thrown.”