Redshirt sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims could have easily said the best of his six throws Saturday against Richmond came when he found wide receiver E.J. Scott wide open running a corner route and hit him for a 24-yard reception.
But well aware that it was his knowledge of the playbook that prevented him from beating out junior Michael Rocco for the starting job under center during training camp, Sims pointed to a pass that – on the surface – was much simpler: a seven-yard completion to wide receiver Tim Scott.
It was a three-step drop, and Richmond forced Sims to scan the field right to left going through his progressions before he found Smith, his high school teammate, open over the middle. It’s a situation that’s hard to simulate on the practice field, but “when it happens, you’ve got to make it,” Sims said. “It was one of the better decisions I’ve made since I’ve been here.”
Some newfound confidence proved to be the end result of Sims’s Virginia debut. The Alabama transfer entered the contest to a rousing ovation with more than 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the score well in hand after Rocco (25 of 37 for 311 yards and one touchdown) helped ignite an offense that ended the afternoon with 545 total yards in a 43-19 win over Richmond.
Sims proceeded to complete five of his six passes for 50 yards as Virginia embarked on a 14-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that running back Khalek Shepherd capped off with a one-yard scoring plunge. After the game, Sims made it clear learning the playbook won’t be an obstacle for long.
“I have to know just as much as Rocco and [sophomore David Watford] and everybody else in the room. Because if not, and I have to go in, we’re screwed,” Sims said. “I definitely won’t do that to the team, and I’m not going to let myself down. I know I’m better than that, and I know what I’m capable of doing.”
Though London named Rocco the starting quarterback last week, Sims didn’t sound like someone conceding the job for good Saturday. He talked of how “there’s not a throw that [the coaches] can ask me to make that I’m not capable of making” and added that he knows about 85 or 90 percent of Virginia’s playbook at this point.
But Sims stopped short of challenging Rocco. From his days with the Crimson Tide, he knows the fine line one must walk for the sake of the team.
“It’s something that I did all last year. [Alabama quarterback A.J. [McCarron and me competed all offseason and into the first game of the season and it didn’t come out the way I wanted,” Sims said. “So I had to do what’s necessary for me to improve, but also what the team needed of me.
“I’m not gonna say it’s something I’m the happiest about, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to help the team and yourself sometimes. It’s something I’ve done before, so I’m not uncomfortable with it. You want to be guy, but you’ve got to go out there and improve every day so you can be the guy.”
Virginia Coach Mike London had one word to describe tight end Jake McGee’s first-career catch Saturday: “Wow.”
That summed up what might have been the play of the day in all of college football. With the Cavaliers facing second and nine midway through the second quarter, Rocco unleashed what London thought was a pass destined to sail out of bounds. But McGee somehow made a diving 17-yard catch along the sideline with just his left hand. After a booth review, the reception was confirmed.
McGee, who finished with two catches for 32 yards, never had any doubts about it.
“I knew I caught it and when I came down with it, it sort of went through my head that that was a pretty cool catch,” he said. “It’s sort of just instincts take over and you don’t really know. It just all happens. It’s not a thought out process. It’s just my hands go and luckily it worked out.”
Added London, “He just wanted the opportunity to catch more balls with that one spectacular catch.”
Running back Clifton Richardson was in uniform Saturday but did not play due to a lower leg injury. London said Richardson could have played if necessary and should be available next week when Virginia takes on Penn State. The Nittany Lions lost to Ohio, 24-14.
In Richardson’s place, Shepherd received more snaps than usual. In addition to a 59-yard kickoff return to begin the second half, the sophomore tailback tied senior Perry Jones with a team-high 52 yards rushing.
I also noticed starting right guard Cody Wallace limping off the field with what appeared to be a right leg injury, but no word on his status moving forward.