Throughout the preseason, the performance of new starting quarterback Marques Hagans was the most pressing question facing the Virginia football team.
With improved talent at most positions, the Cavaliers didn't necessarily need Hagans to play like his all-ACC predecessor, Matt Schaub, but their championship goals seemed to depend on the 5-foot-10 redshirt junior to at least run the offense efficiently and avoid major mistakes.
So far, Hagans has done that and a bit more. He was cool and confident in tuneup games against Temple, North Carolina and Akron, completing 43 of 59 passes for 568 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception while rushing for 58 yards. As Virginia prepares to host Syracuse on Saturday, Hagans is first in the ACC and among the national leaders with a .729 completion percentage and a 167.1 passing efficiency rating.
Given the mediocre competition, the 12th-ranked Cavaliers (3-0) aren't doing cartwheels just yet over any aspect of what has been a dominant start to the season, but they are, without question, pleased with the play of their quarterback.
"I think we all understand that those circumstances and situations are going to continuously get more rugged for us," Coach Al Groh said. "But given the circumstances that we've been dealing with, I thought it's gone well, and he ought to feel positive about it."
It's really no surprise, Virginia players said, given what they saw from Hagans in the past two seasons at quarterback, wide receiver and punt returner.
"I had the utmost confidence in [Hagans], even before he ever showed anything [this year], because I know he's got it together up there in the head," co-captain defensive end Brennan Schmidt said. "He's very calm. I've seen him handle some incredible situations. . . . I know whatever is in front of him, he's going to be able to take. So it's never been a question with me. . . . We've been always secure about him."
The Cavaliers knew Hagans had the physical skills to be a great quarterback, even if he was built more like a tailback. He was an outstanding athlete with a rocket arm at Hampton High School and Fork Union Military Academy, arriving in Charlottesville three years ago as the latest in a line of Tidewater area quarterbacks that included Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry and Allen Iverson.
Hagans's height was for some observers a major drawback, but Groh said he knew better than to judge a quarterback on his physical appearance.
"I've seen them come in all shapes and forms," said Groh, a coaching veteran of 37-plus seasons. "If you stood Joe Montana and Dan Marino in the same room, you wouldn't think they played the same position. [Same with] Doug Flutie or John Elway."
Hagans plays quarterback differently than he would if he were taller -- most notably when he is scanning the field from behind an offensive line that averages nearly 6-6 per man -- but the disadvantage is a slight one. His athletic ability, Groh said, more than makes up for it.
Like any mobile quarterback, though, Hagans has had to learn -- and is still learning -- how to balance his duties as a passer and a runner. Such players, as Groh put it, "have to have the discipline to stay with the system but the good sense to use all the talent that they were blessed with."
Thus, Hagans has a modest nine rushing attempts this season. More often he simply eludes pass rushers and moves to a better spot to throw the ball.
"I had to learn . . . that you see holes within the line, but that's the blocking scheme," Hagans said. "I used to just take off and run, but now I'm learning to see the defense and just feel the rush. I think it's helped me out a lot, just getting in the pocket and feeling comfortable and going through my reads."
For now, that is enough. Virginia's running game, featuring four talented backs and a top-notch offensive line, has produced 911 yards in three games. The defense appears to be one of the strongest in the ACC. But Hagans will need to be ready when the Cavaliers hit the meat of their schedule in a few weeks.
"He did a super job against us . . . but I don't think he was really challenged in that game," said Temple Coach Bobby Wallace, whose Owls allowed Hagans 236 yards of total offense in the season opener. "When they play somebody that matches up a little more up front and puts the pressure on him to have to make plays with the receivers, that's going to be the interesting part."