Earlier this week, as he discussed the self-reflection Virginia underwent during its bye, Coach Mike London used the phrase “finding the right combination” as he discussed his team’s quarterback play. Turns out he meant that literally.
After beginning the year with junior Michael Rocco as the starter – with a couple brief relief appearances from Alabama transfer Phillip Sims – and then turning to Sims last month at Duke, the Cavaliers went back to the sort of in-and-out rotation they used a year ago with Rocco and David Watford in Saturday’s resounding win over North Carolina State.
For one day, at least, the two seemed to operate seamlessly together, with both throwing touchdown passes. A year ago, though, shuffling quarterbacks didn’t work and the Cavaliers didn’t hit their stride until Rocco was anointed the primary starter. So even in victory, the question London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor faced was: why now?
“It was a determination as we looked at ourselves,” London said. “Obviously you’ve got two guys that are talented players and provide different things for our team.”
Throughout the bye week, London said Rocco and Sims split reps with the first team and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor didn’t let them know specifically when they would enter the game. As it turned out, Sims played the first two series, Rocco the next two and then Lazor went on feel and the types of plays he planned to call from there.
As for Lazor’s strategy with his two pupils during the week: “I prepared them the best I could as far as mentally you just say: ‘Hey, I’m the starter. I know I’m gonna get some chances. Just make the most of it.’ If you can sleep at night with that, that’s the best way to go to bed tonight.”
“We just feel like we have two guys that can help us win and we want to give them both opportunities to perform,” he added later. “They’re both gonna continue to get better if they play.”
When the game ended, Rocco had played 10 series, completing 12 of 23 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. Sims was in the game for six series, finishing 8 of 10 for 115 yards and two total touchdowns (one rushing, one passing). More importantly, both stayed in rhythm despite being yanked in-and-out of Saturday’s game.
“You just got to keep watching the defense, what the defense is doing. Make sure when the other guy comes off the field you give him some feedback on things that you saw,” said Sims, who added the key to his success was getting rid of the ball earlier than two weeks ago when he struggled as the lone signal caller against Wake Forest.
“That way you just stay sharp and in the game and you’re also helping the other guy out while he’s out there. You just gotta do what you gotta do to stay in the game. Nobody cares about how long you’ve been out. When you go back in, you’ve got to be able to do what you did when you came out.”
Lazor indicated the rotation is likely here to stay the rest of the season, and even Rocco seems to have warmed to the idea more after last season’s struggles with it.
“I’m confident in both of us,” he said. “I know Phillip does a good job out there. When our offense is confident, our offense does a good job. When we move the ball, we score points. . . . Whether it’s me in the huddle or Phillip, if our offense is confident we’re gonna do a good job. That’s the main goal.”