In a span of seven months, Virginia true freshman David Watford has evolved from a quarterback with a throwing motion that was too slow and an understanding of the offense that was too limited to the second-string signal caller, one whom coaches hope will be ready to start by season’s end.
Coach Mike London said Monday that while Watford is not yet ready to be Virginia’s “every-down” quarterback, he plans to give Watford more playing time as the season progresses and noted that “David’s breathing down [sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco’s] neck.”
The Cavaliers (3-2, 0-1 ACC) are coming off a bye week in which Rocco – who has started all five games this season – was held out of practices to rest the ribs he injured 2 1/2 weeks ago. And while Rocco is expected to return to practices this week, it is clear he no longer has a firm grasp on the starting job.
From the season’s outset, London has said he will find playing time for Watford in every game. The plan for Watford has varied from week to week, and his role has increased in recent outings. In Virginia’s most recent game – a 21-20 overtime win Oct. 1 over Idaho – Watford played all but one series in the fourth quarter and took the field for the Cavaliers’ overtime possession. Virginia alternated quarterbacks five times that day.
In an interview late last week, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said he did not believe the mid-game quarterback switching disrupted the offense’s rhythm. He also said he did not believe the Cavaliers are paying a price now for force-feeding Watford game experience in an attempt to reap benefits down the road.
When asked whether there is a hope among the coaching staff that at some point this season Watford is ready to take full reins of the offense, Lazor replied, “There’s no doubt.” But he noted that will have as much to do with how Rocco is performing as how Watford is developing.
Lazor believes too much is being made out of Virginia’s quarterback rotation. He pointed out the offense also has shuffled in offensive linemen, wide receivers and running backs, but “no one has yet wanted to do a [story] with that.” Lazor said it is more common to rotate wide receivers and running backs in and out of games, but “there’s nothing more or less easy about it.”
“The difference is if a receiver screws up a play, the quarterback can always throw to someone else or throw it away,” Lazor said. “If a quarterback screws up, it tends to be a bigger error. . . . So there’s a certain stress level, and so maybe there’s a certain stress level when you’re putting a quarterback in and maybe that helps bring the attention to it because it could be a major mistake.”
The spotlight has followed Watford from the moment he orally committed to Virginia in July 2010. Then he elected to enroll at Virginia a semester early – for the 2011 spring semester – and the anticipation of the Cavaliers’ fan base amplified.
But during spring practice, Watford struggled to grasp the concepts of Lazor’s timing-based pro-style offense. Also, his throwing motion – powerful as his arm was – contained too much of a wind-up.
So at the conclusion of spring practice, Lazor said, he met with the team’s quarterbacks and showed them video clips of “a certain way they threw or whether they were balanced or whatever little techniques I thought were important.” He also showed the clips of NFL quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers.
“The thing that showed up is that these NFL quarterbacks were much simpler in their throwing motion than what David was,” Lazor said.
Prior to joining London’s staff in January 2010, Lazor spent seven seasons as an NFL assistant. Pictures of him and the NFL quarterbacks with whom he has worked adorn his McCue Center office. He keeps the install booklets and offseason quarterback workout plans from his days with the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks on a shelf near the door. He scans the Internet daily for stories of NFL quarterbacks that he can share with his own.
In a matter of seconds, he pulls up on the television above his desk the same video clips he showed the Virginia quarterbacks last spring.
“Here’s a guy [Rivers] that some people would call unorthodox in style,” Lazor said. “He’s a little different, but the point I wanted to make to them [the U-Va. quarterbacks] was that even though maybe he’s different, you can see how simple it is. When it’s time to throw, look how fast that ball comes out.
“And so that was a big coaching point with David, just to simplify his upper body. Because at the time the ball leaves his hand, he’s very talented. But any wasted time is going to hurt you.”
Lazor designed summer workout programs for each Virginia quarterback, and when Watford returned for the start of training camp in August, his throwing motion was more compact. Not to the extent Lazor would prefer it be, but much better than it was in the spring.
And when the weekly scrimmages at Scott Stadium began, Lazor said, Watford began to stand out. It was during those workouts that a consensus was formed among the coaching staff that Watford should play in games this fall.
“To some degree it was just another practice,” Lazor said. “But at the same time, because you go to the stadium and try to make a big deal of playing in game situations, it gives you the best indicator, as close as you can get, to game situations. That was a time when David started to show acceleration forward in his learning process.”
NEXT: How Watford has performed this season.