Virginia sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims chuckled and grinned this week when reminded about the last time he played at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. It was a high school game almost four years ago, but Sims has watched the highlights of his performance in the 2008 Virginia AAA state championship game enough to remember how it felt to throw five first-half touchdowns in Oscar Smith High’s 52-24 rout of Osbourn.
“Pretty good memories about playing there,” he noted.
Of course, his transition at Virginia after transferring from Alabama hasn’t gone as smoothly. Sims will return to Blacksburg on Saturday stuck in a quarterback rotation with junior Michael Rocco, one that has proven to be more confusing than effective.
And this week, with the Cavaliers’ bowl hopes dashed after a loss to North Carolina last Thursday, both quarterbacks’ desire to snap Virginia’s eight-game losing streak to the Hokies also allowed for them to reflect on a season in which neither could separate themselves as the team’s undisputed starter.
“I’m going to approach the offseason like I’m the leader of the team, like I did last year. I think he’s going to do it the same way,” Rocco said. “We’re going to compete against each other like we have all season, and we’re going to push each other. Hopefully the team will rally behind us in that effect. We’re not going to change anything because we’re trying to play next year, or whatever. We’re going to push each other and we’re going to work as hard as we can. I know I’m going to approach it like I’m the leader of the team, and I’m going to get my guys to rally behind me.”
London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have found relying on one quarterback to be a tough task. Rocco has actually bettered his completion percentage (62 percent) and improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio (12 touchdowns, nine interceptions) from a year ago. He has also shown off increased mobility, and London routinely praises how maturely he handled Sims’s arrival on campus.
Sims is completing only 56.6 percent of his passes, but has nine touchdowns and just four interceptions. He talked this week of his developing relationship with Lazor and how he wants “get back to being me” after spending much of the season trying to fit in on a new team. Sims firmly believes that an entire offseason in Virginia’s system will make a world of difference, and like Rocco, he’s preparing for another lengthy battle to become the starter throughout spring practice and into training camp.
“This past season, it’s been decent as far as what I could have hoped for,” Sims said. “It’s not holding a clipboard. It’s not just being on the sideline being a backup. But as a competitor, everybody wants to be the guy. Every game. Every second. Every minute. Everybody wants to be the guy. So I would be letting myself down if I didn’t expect myself to be that guy. I just expect more from myself.”
London said this week both quarterbacks would once again play against Virginia Tech, though he did not specify how the rotation would work. He and Lazor claim to be shuffling Rocco and Sims in and out of the lineup randomly, a strategy that worked when the Cavaliers totaled 74 points in consecutive wins over North Carolina State and Miami but backfired last Thursday against the Tar Heels.
“It looks like to me that they run the same offense,” Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said this week when asked about Virginia’s quarterback rotation. “Both Rocco and Sims have live arms. You notice, it seems like to me, Rocco is a little more disciplined from the standpoint of he’s throwing checkdowns and things of that nature. I think Sims is a guy, he throws it down the field maybe a little bit more.”
Whether both will play next year remains to be seen, but Saturday will be the last chance for Sims and Rocco to show their skills on the field ahead of what promises to be an intriguing offseason. The Cavaliers are loaded at quarterback, with sophomore David Watford taking a redshirt this year and freshman Greyson Lambert drawing raves for his play in practice since arriving on campus.
High school quarterbacks Corwin Cutler and Brendan Marshall (Good Counsel) have also orally committed to Virginia, making a crowded situation even more tenuous. But London wasn’t ready to admit committing to one quarterback is the best course of action for the future.
“This year the quarterback situation was dictated out of need, borne out of necessity, and what happens in the spring and next year I’m quite sure will be reevaluated again,” he said. “Obviously you look at the guys that you have and where they are in their year of eligibility remaining to try and set up a succession order that one can play and then the next one behind him can play when their turn comes.”