Virginia football’s quarterback carousel spinning in spring practice

David Watford, last year's starter, will battle with two others to be Virginia’s starting quarterback in 2014. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In the middle of an interview after the Virginia football team completed its first spring practice of the year Saturday, quarterback Greyson Lambert instinctively began to look over his shoulder.

Between Lambert’s sound bites about embracing the competition under center, the only noise came from the field. David Watford, last year’s starter, continued to toss passes to wide receiver Miles Gooch.

And with that, the wide-open race to become the Cavaliers’ starting signal caller in 2014 had officially begun.

“I didn’t come here to give up this job, and I didn’t work as hard last year to give up the job. That’s not in any of my thoughts,” Watford said a few minutes later, his extra throwing session complete. “I don’t want to give up the job. If Greyson wants the job, he’s going to have to win it outright. I’m not going to give it up. I’m not just going to hand it to him.”

Once again, the main story line of Virginia’s spring practice revolves around its quarterbacks.

Watford started all 12 games as a sophomore a season ago, when the Cavaliers went 2-10 and lost their last nine. But Coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild have declared no favorite as to who will be under center when the program begins the 2014 campaign against UCLA on Aug. 30.

Watford, Lambert and rising sophomore Matt Johns, all of whom were part of the quarterback competition last year, will be given a chance to prove their mettle over the coming months.

On Saturday, Lambert took the first-team reps, but Fairchild was quick to point out that distinction will rotate on a practice-by-practice basis. London noted that every drill each player participates in will be charted and analyzed.

The same was true last year at this time, and Watford eventually emerged as Virginia’s choice at quarterback. But the Hampton, Va., native was erratic during his first year as a full-time starter, completing just 57.1 percent of his passes for 2,202 yards, eight touchdowns and an ACC-high 15 interceptions.

By the end of the season, with Watford struggling more, Lambert saw increasing action in relief and performed better, albeit mostly with games long since decided.

“I don’t think it was just David,” Fairchild said Saturday. “We’ve got to play better around him. We got to coach better. We just weren’t very good last year. We’ve got to get a lot better.”

Lambert, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound rising sophomore, ultimately played in seven games in 2014, completing 33 of his 75 passes for 340 yards and one touchdown. But when London inserted him into Virginia’s 16-6 loss to Virginia Tech in last year’s regular season finale with the game still in the balance, Lambert also had issues. He finished 4 for 16 for 54 yards and an interception.

Lambert believes another year in Fairchild’s system has helped with his comfort level and that “every time I was on the field, I was able to learn.” He already had the best arm in the program.

“I really think he’s taken the next step to trusting himself,” tight end Jake McGee said.

Johns is something of a wild card, having come to Charlottesville as an afterthought in 2012. He spent last season as the team’s holder on kicks.

But Fairchild has consistently praised the Chalfont, Pa., native over the past year, and the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Johns described his skill set as “more of a pocket quarterback, but if I need to get out and run, I’ll try and make plays with my feet.”

Neither London nor Fairchild have set a timetable for naming a starter, and the battle again could drag into August’s training camp. The urgency, though, was palpable Saturday, particularly with so many other Virginia sports teams performing well these days — nine programs are ranked in the top 10 in the country this week.

So London, a former defensive line coach, spent more time than usual watching the quarterbacks throw, backing up his promise to be “more hands-on” this year.

After one play in which the ball slipped out of Watford’s hands for a careless fumble during a red-zone drill, he screamed at the entire team. The next snap, Watford hit running back Taquan Mizzell in the flat, and he stretched out for the pylon to score a touchdown.

If only the repairs were that simple in 2013.

“I’m all about looking forward, and that’s behind us,” London said. “The job now is to look forward and perform and get it fixed and do the things that are going to help this team be successful.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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