The play of quarterback Todd Kirtley represented a rare bright spot last season as the University of Virginia compiled yet another glum losing season.
Four quarterbacks saw appreciable playing time as the Cavaliers attempted to remedy an anemic air attack that was the second-poorest in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Kirtley waited patiently for his turn and made the most of it. His performance at season's end and during spring practice has moved the Robinson High (Fairfax) former All-met into the No. 1 slot.
"Kirtley came back as No. 1 and he's holding it," Rip Scherer, Virginia's quarterback coach, said today. "His strong point is his good head and feel for the passing game. He's not going to hurt us."
Kirtley, never a starter in '78, still produced the two most productive passing games for the Cavaliers, who finished 2-9.
"I wanted to get the starting job as soon as I could," Kirtley said of his freshman year. "I came in against Clemson and threw a touchdown pass. Against Virginia Military, I completed a 45-yard option pass from halfback. But I still didn't start."
Through the first nine games last season, the Cavalier air force more resembled an air farce. Virginia registered miserable outputs of 14 and 17 yards in two games and managed only three scoring passes for the year.
Then Coach Dick Bestwick inserted Kirtley against the next-to-last foe, North Carolina. The freshman finished with a 137-yard passing day, completing 14 of 23 attempts. But a porous defense gave up nearly 500 yards and Virginia lost.
Surprisingly, Kirtley found himself on the bench for the finale against Peach Bowl-bound North Carolina State. Kirtley came in with Virginia down 10 points and guided the Cavaliers to a pair of second-half touchdowns on long marches.
His 74-yard touchdown strike-to Andre Grier lifted Virginia into a three-point lead. However, a late Wolfpace 50-yard punt return for a score ended the Cavalier season on a losing note.
"The team had a slow start," Kirtley said. "We were expected to do reasonably well and then we were shut out in our first two games. Late in the season, we put it together more and, when the season ended, we were just getting ready to play well.
"I'm optimistic this year because we finished playing out best ball last year. Hopefully, the momentum will carry over. There are a lot of good people back and Coach Bestwick went out and recruited some more good ones.
"He (Bestwick) told us that we are bigger, stronger and faster than any team he's had. We will do more things offensively to try and confuse defenses. We're this close (showing first joint of his finger) to winning."
The complexity of Bestwick's expanded veer option offense keeps Kirtley well-occupied, persuing his playbook at any spare moment and attending numerous team and unit meetings.
Kirtley probably can't help noticing with a twinge of deja vu, that another freshman quarterback, Rich Riccardi, stood out during Virginia's most recent team scrimmage.
Promises for better teams have become annual disappointments for many Cavalier fans. Virginia has had 10 straight losing seasons ahd haven't won more than two games since 1973 (4-7).
"A lot of people criticize us," Kirtley said. "A few even make jokes openly about the program. But, I believe that the majority still want the team to do well."
Kirtley, who is being billed as the team's new leader, refused to use the school's stringent academic requirements as an alibi for their losing tradition.
Twenty-four Cavalier football players were on the last four ACC all-academic teams; graduated punter Russ Henderson accounted for Virginia's selections to the strictly athletic ACC all-star squads in '77 and '78.
"The main thing Coach Bestwick wants is to prove he can win using high quality athletes and his system, Kirtley said.
Kirtley lettered nine times in three sports at Robinson, making All-District teams in basketball and baseball, in addition to his football honors. He said that his best sport was baseball (shortstop) and he had hoped to be offered a baseball scholarship. Now Kirtley is not allowed to play college baseball because of his football scholarship.
The coaching staff cannot bear the thought of its new-hope quarterback pulling a muscle while throwing out a base runner.