CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia quarterback David Watford craned his neck to read the menu for a brief moment and quickly decided he wasn’t hungry. It was his first visit to the Bellair Market, a popular off-campus lunch spot that operates out of an Exxon gas station, since working here as a sandwich maker a year earlier.
But Watford never did develop an affinity for any of the trademark hoagies, named after various regional landmarks. He hated working during lunch, the rush of customers too much pressure for his first job in the kitchen. At the end of a shift, he would concoct “The Watford,” piling meats and vegetables and sauces as high as he saw fit.
So why did he agree to work there in the first place? Watford greets the question with a smile.
“Biscuit told me about it. He worked here one summer, too,” he says.
Biscuit is Watford’s cousin, former Virginia quarterback and current Cavaliers wide receivers coach Marques Hagans. Their relationship offers a glimpse into why, 12 months after Watford was forced to take a redshirt year because of Virginia’s logjam at quarterback, he will take the field as the Cavaliers’ starting signal-caller when they start the 2013 season against Brigham Young on Saturday.
Last summer, Watford was almost a forgotten entity despite playing as a true freshman in 2011, a third wheel behind incumbent starter Michael Rocco and ballyhooed Alabama transfer Phillip Sims. In the first week of training camp, Coach Mike London asked Watford to redshirt, a concept Watford was initially — and publicly — against.
But when he officially named Watford the starter earlier this month, London talked of a player who proved to have “an innate ability to be the leader, to be the face” of a program that is looking to rebound after its second 4-8 season in three years.
So what happened between now and then? Watford realized his setback wasn’t all that different from the one Hagans overcame during his career at Virginia.
“The way he just matured and the way he handled the situation really affected me,” Watford said. “He just came in to work every day and made the most of it, and that’s what I did as well. I treated every day like a Saturday.”
Like most youth football players in Hampton, Va., Watford idolized former Hampton High quarterback Ronald Curry, and Hagans emerged as Curry’s replacement in 1998. From that point on, Watford knew he wanted to be a quarterback, too.
“I wanted to throw like him, run like him, do everything he did,” Watford said of Hagans. “I remember throwing with him and my hands just aching because of how hard he threw it, but I tried to throw it just as hard as he did. That’s how I learned to throw the ball.”
Once Hagans got to Virginia in 2001, though, he encountered a coaching staff that had its doubts about his abilities at quarterback. He was forced to redshirt as a freshman and then spent two years as a wide receiver, kick returner and backup signal-caller.
Only in 2004 did Hagans ascend to the starting role, and he eventually led the Cavaliers to consecutive bowl games — the last Virginia quarterback to do so. He now sits No. 5 in program history in terms of total offense.
Watford said Hagans reminded him about that journey soon after London broke the news about a redshirt.
“It was hurtful for the first time now being one of the best players on the team and having to watch. It just ignited a fire,” Hagans said of his own situation. Watford “struggled going through that process, the following year being told he was going to sit. Most people don’t redshirt after they play. They redshirt before they play.”
Watford got over the stigma of sitting for an entire season with a gimmick Hagans mastered years earlier: Treat every practice like a game day.
Teammates noticed he “didn’t sulk, he didn’t pout” on the scout team as the Cavaliers struggled in 2012, Hagans said. Watford saw the big picture, that there would be another chance to become starter.
On the first day new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was on campus after replacing Bill Lazor in January, Watford was in his office. In the offseason, a group of Navy SEALs — brought in to work out with the team — identified him as a natural leader, without any background knowledge from Virginia’s coaching staff. He even read a book on toughness by ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, hopeful it would shed some light on leadership.
By the start of training camp, once Rocco transferred to Richmond and Sims was ruled academically ineligible — he later transferred to Winston-Salem State — Watford, a redshirt sophomore, was No. 1 on the depth chart and a model for the rest of the team.
“When David says something, guys stop talking and listen to him,” tight end Jake McGee said. “He truly has earned it to be considered a leader of this football team.”
Watford admits now that last year “felt like forever,” but that the offseason “flew by.” He won the starting job over redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert in August because of his stint in the lineup during the 2011 season and his mobility.
Hagans said Watford is “light years ahead of where he was when he first got here” as a passer. But Fairchild was quick to note this week “he needs experience. There’s no question.”
So unlike his short-lived stint as a sandwich maker, Watford’s work is not done. Nobody understands that better than Biscuit.
“I didn’t understand how much he watched me and looked up to me until I actually came back here,” Hagans said. “Now it’s part of my job to play it forward to him, to help him minimize all the mistakes that I made so that he can be the best player he can be.”