With a short week to prepare for Thursday night’s contest at Miami, Virginia Coach Mike London said Sunday this might be a prudent time to scale back the in-game responsibilities placed on freshman quarterback David Watford.
Watford has played in each game this season, and he has led the offense in multiple series in five of those seven contests – including the past four. But after Watford threw three interceptions in nine series and – for the first time this year – logged nearly as many snaps as sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco during Virginia’s 28-14 loss to North Carolina State on Saturday, London said the coaching staff is revisiting the current setup of the Cavaliers’ quarterback rotation.
Specifically, London said the staff is looking at having Watford appear for stretches of plays, rather than for entire series.
“We just have to take a hard look at ourselves and look at our guys, our young guys, our quarterbacks, and say, ‘Listen, are we putting them in a good situation for them to be successful?’ ” London said. “And if it means dialing back some of David’s opportunities, maybe more plays than series, and allow Michael to hang in there a little bit longer and play the game, then we may have to do that.”
Rocco – who has started all seven games this season – has been affected by the coaching staff’s insistence to this point on finding Watford playing time in the first half. Watford has entered the game for the first time in either the fourth or fifth series of every contest this season, regardless of the circumstance. He once came in with Virginia backed up at its own 1-yard line. Two games ago, he came in right after Rocco threw an interception. On Saturday, he came in right after Rocco led the Cavaliers on a 14-play, 72-yard touchdown drive.
Of late, Rocco and the offense have gotten off to promising starts (scoring touchdowns on two of the first three drives in three of the past four games) and then not been able to rediscover the same rhythm following Watford’s first-half series. That may be a coincidence. It may not be. But at 4-3 and needing two wins in their final five games to secure a bowl bid, London appears concerned enough to at least reconsider Watford’s scripted entrances into games.
“I’m in it for the long haul for these guys and their overall development,” London said. “Part of coaching is looking to see how you’re doing it, and maybe we may have to change some things as far as David and when he goes in. But the goal was to get him some game time reps and game time experience, and I think we’re meeting that. But at the same time, I don’t want to overwhelm him with having to be making the big time game time throws that a year and a half ago he was in high school trying to make.”
What is clear is that London’s focus is squarely on Watford and how the quarterback rotation affects Watford’s development.
When asked if he thought the quarterback rotation to this point has been beneficial for the overall development of the offense, London said: “I think it’s been beneficial for the overall development of the next quarterback that’s got to go in the game,” meaning Watford.
“I think that absent of having given (Watford) some opportunities to get in and play that you get to a point where you look at the development and you look at the expectations of the position and also you look at you never want to put a young man in a situation where he experiences, you know, I guess the disappointments of the games,” London continued. “You want to make sure that you can still bring him along, which we have, which we’ve done. But at the same time you try to do things that can help him be successful.
“To go in and say, ‘You drive us from here to there and take the entire weight of the playbook on him,’ may have been unfair to him. But at the same time, the skills and ability have lended him credence to be able to do that.”
London brought up the rib injury Rocco suffered late in the second half of Virginia’s 30-24 loss to Southern Miss. on Sept. 24 as an example “that necessitated the ability to have David ready.” That Southern Miss game followed the only two contests of the year (at Indiana and at North Carolina) in which Watford played only one series.
London also brought up Virginia’s 24-21 win over then-No. 12 Georgia Tech on Oct. 15, a game in which the Cavaliers rushed for 272 yards.
“We had one of the best rushing games the school has ever had,” London said. “You don’t need to throw the ball much.”
But on Saturday against N.C. State, the Cavaliers felt they did need to get the passing game going and could not. Virginia tallied 16 more passing attempts against N.C. State than it did against Georgia Tech and recorded 10 fewer passing yards (135-125).
“I want to make sure I help try to protect these guys, protect David in terms of, he’s going to be a good quarterback,” London said. “He’s going to be a good quarterback. He’s a freshman that’s got skills, but you also have to be mindful to try to put him in position that can help him. He’s a competitor, but he’s got a lot to learn. And that’s okay, because he wants to learn. At the same time, instead of series, we may be thinking plays with him.”
Virginia tallied its fewest total yards Saturday (249) in 19 games under London. The Cavaliers have not scored more than 11 points in a given second half since Sept. 17 at North Carolina, a span of four games. Coincidence or not, Watford’s playing time increased during that same span.
Still, London said Sunday he does not believe the offense’s overall development has been sacrificed in order to bring Watford along.
“I think as you look at the development of the offense, we ran into a situation [Saturday] where [N.C. State] played better than us,” London said. “They were better prepared for what we did, better than how we reacted to what they did to us. But in the development of the offense, I think that continues to move on, move forward.
“But at the same time, it’s a tricky situation trying also to develop the next quarterback to go in the game, heaven forbid the guy that’s taking all the snaps is done. In Michael Rocco’s case, with the rib injury, that was something we had to be conscious of also.”