CHARLOTTESVILLE -- No matter how tactfully he tries to deny it, Scott Secules has been the tough-luck, forgotten-man quarterback throughout his football career at the University of Virginia.
The trend took hold early. In fact, he became familiar with adversity even before he had a chance to peruse his first Cavaliers playbook. After starring in three sports at Chantilly High School, he couldn't compete his freshman season at Virginia because he broke a foot in a high school all-star game. And, for a long time after, it was one obstacle, disappointment or frustration after another.
He has been saddled with the misfortune of serving as the filler between the signal-calling reigns of two exceptional, natural athletes: last year's quarterback, Don Majkowski -- now with the Green Bay Packers -- and Virginia's two-way threat of the future, red-shirt freshman Shawn Moore.
The result has been a constant struggle to escape an entire career spent as the consummate backup. But for over three years, every step forward was rewarded with a complimentary return trip to the bench.
Secules started three games last year when Majkowski was sidelined with a bruised throwing shoulder, setting school records with 30 completions in 49 attempts against Clemson along the way. But in his third start, against Virginia Tech, Secules complained of tightness in his right thigh in the second quarter, and Majkowski was back in -- for good.
Secules saw mostly mop-up duty the rest of the season. Even this season, the one for which he waited behind Majkowski so long, the fifth-year senior was dealt an unexpected amount of bench time in the season's first two games.
Virginia Coach George Welsh decided to go with two quarterbacks early on, and Secules found himself watching Moore even after playing well; Secules orchestrated two impressive first-half touchdown drives in the season-opening loss to Georgia, then went to the bench and was relatively ineffective when he returned later in the game.
After Moore completed eight of nine passes and produced two touchdowns against Maryland a week later, a few calls for a quick changing of the guard could be heard.
"He's not the kind of person who will say anything about it, but it sure bothered him all along," said Cavaliers wide receiver Keith Mattioli, a teammate of Secules at Chantilly before walking on at Virginia and leading the team with 44 catches last season.
"It's always seemed to be that way with him. Last year, he plays great, and then Donnie comes back and it's 'Forget you.' It's just a great tribute to him that he's coming through now."
Indeed, Secules has played his way out of the two-quarterback rotation. He completed 12 of 17 passes with a touchdown in the Cavaliers' 14-13 win over Virginia Tech, and he's been even better since.
The next week against Duke, he began a school-record string of five straight games over 200 yards passing. Twice this season, he has broken Virginia's single-game completion percentage record, most recently with a 20-for-25 outing against a Wake Forest pass defense that came into the game ranked sixth in the nation.
He ranks first in the ACC and 11th in the nation in passing efficiency. He has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,550 yards (193.8 per game), thrown eight touchdowns and five interceptions, and is second in the conference in total offense.
"Before the year, it would've been too much to expect what we've gotten out of him," Welsh said. "He's had great days every time out since the third game. . . We felt Shawn Moore was ready to play early in the season, and he did a good job, but it got to the point where Scott started playing so much better and we just couldn't see ever having him out of there."
That chance was all Secules ever wanted.
"To me, it was just a matter of having to bide my time and wait my turn to get to this year," he said. "I was paying my dues. When Don got hurt last year, I played well, but it's team policy not to lose your job because of an injury. This year, I understood Coach Welsh's situation. He's got a backup quarterback who will be his guy next year, and he had never taken a snap -- so you've got to cover yourself that way.
"I never really drew any parallels between these things from year to year. That's all in the past now, anyway."
His friend, Mattioli said, "Sure it bothered him. Don't let him fool you. It always bothers you when you think you have the ability but aren't playing. I always thought he could do what he's doing now; I just didn't know if he'd ever get the chance."
With Secules firmly entrenched as the starter, the Cavaliers offense has evolved away from Welsh's preferred option attack into an extension of Secules' style, a thinking man's quarterback who strays from the pocket only out of necessity.
"We've expanded the passing game because he can handle it," Welsh said. "Once he grasped all the new formations and options, I think it's really helped him."
Of course Secules holds himself accountable to standards higher than mere statistical excellence. "The numbers are saying a lot of good things, but there are times I could have done a lot better," he said. "In some of our losses, I had good numbers, but I'd rather just measure by wins and losses all the way around."
Even by that yardstick, Secules and the Cavaliers are exceeding expectations. With the toughest part of its schedule over, Virginia is 4-4 (2-2 in the ACC) with three games remaining in a season in which few prognostications marked the Cavaliers down for more than three wins.
Secules prompted more than a few chuckles in preseason practice with his forecast of six or seven wins and a possible bowl appearance.
"I've surprised a lot of people personally this year and we've surprised a lot of people as a team," Secules said. "None of it surprises me too much, though. I knew I could play and I knew the guys here could play. The media and the fans just focus on what happened last year. I saw the attitude and the hard work."
Such intangibles are what allow Secules to transcend his physical limitations. "He's not that big; he's not that strong; he's not fast -- he's just good," Clemson defensive end Michael Dean Perry said after Secules left an intense Tiger pass rush empty-handed and threw for 202 yards in Virginia's 38-21 loss earlier this season.
Even with a young offensive line , Secules has been sacked just three times all season. "He doesn't let you get him," Perry said. "He gets rid of the ball and you end up real frustrated. And it's not just throwing it away; most of the time he hits his receiver no matter if you're in his face or not."
Secules is just happy to be on the other side of the frustration ledger for a change. "This is what I've always waited for," he said. "Right now, I've got the chance I always wanted. I just have to go out and try to make the best out of it every week. Nothing is going to be given to me."