Sophomore Mike Eck, the dark horse in a three-man field, has been named to start at quarterback for Virginia in Saturday's televised football opener at Navy.
Coach George Welsh, whose homecoming has made Saturday's contest something special, picked Eck over senior Gordie Whitehead, who returned to practice today following a week of nursing a sore shoulder, and junior transfer Wayne Schuchts.
"All three were close," Welsh said. "Whitehead's missing a whole week has made him doubtful to play at all. Eck and Schuchts were neck and neck, but I think Eck has a little better grasp of our offense."
Eck played sparingly in six games last season, completing 16 of 49 passes and having four intercepted. His only start was in the 48-7 loss at Maryland. However, Eck impressed Welsh in the spring, when Whitehead was absent because of the shoulder injury, initially suffered in a baseball game.
"Eck had a good spring and he's a little bit more decisive now," Welsh said. "He throws well enough, he has good feet and he has a good command of our offense. He'll be in there as long as he moves the team. If he doesn't, Schuchts will play. At this point I don't see myself using Whitehead except in an emergency."
Eck, 6-foot-1 and 181, is in his third year here, having been redshirted after breaking his collarbone in the first scrimmage of his freshman year. He is an intelligent young man with thoughts of law school in his future. As a high school senior in Pittsburgh he coached the team for three games while the coaches were involved in a teachers strike.
"I guess I'm surprised to be starting, but I always felt if I played well and earned it, I'd get it," Eck said. "I think I had a pretty good fall. I had a slow start, but I've come on and I feel confident."
Of that less-than-auspicious start at Maryland, Eck said, "I learned from it and I want to forget it. It was a learning experience. Our system now is a lot simpler and more straightforward than last year. There aren't as many reads and it's easier to execute."
Welsh reiterated today that he did not want to make this a big game for Virginia "just because of me. It's the Virginia team against the Navy team and what decides the winner will be who blocks and tackles and executes better, not who's standing on the sideline.
"When you've been around as long as I have, coaching a couple hundred games as a head coach and as an assistant, it's just another game. Maybe for the Navy players it has special significance, because they're not going to want to lose to me. They're going to have a psychological advantage in that regard. The only concern I have is that too much is made of my going back to Navy, and not enough made of our football team playing them."
If Welsh was trying hard to downgrade the impact of his homecoming visit to Annapolis, Athletic Director Dick Schultz made it plain that the game was being televised for that reason alone.
"We had been trying to sell the game for some time," Schultz said. "We felt it was a natural, with a nationally known football coach like George Welsh in his first game against his old school, Navy. The emotions of that game, whether anybody wants to admit them or not, should be very appealing to a network."