Virginia sophomore Darius Jennings was the starting quarterback at Baltimore powerhouse Gilman for three years, but he knew all along that wouldn’t get him a Division I scholarship. The Greyhounds ran a Wildcat offense, where Jennings’s legs were his biggest weapons.
The Cavaliers quickly designated him as a wide receiver during the recruiting process. So when he looks back on his first training camp in Charlottesville a season ago, Jennings just laughs.
“I didn’t know anything. I was just running the plays on the fly,” he said. “Even throughout the season, I played but I wasn’t really in my comfort level. I’m a lot more comfortable now.”
Quarterbacks are all the rage at Virginia’s training camp this year. That isn’t just about the three-way battle between incumbent Michael Rocco, Alabama transfer Phillip Sims and sophomore David Watford to determine the starting signal-caller when the Cavaliers open the season against Richmond on Sept. 1.
Both sides of the ball are littered with converted quarterbacks at or near the top of the depth chart at crucial spots. That includes Jennings, former All-Met Dominique Terrell and sophomore Miles Gooch at wide receiver, safety Anthony Harris and cornerback Maurice Canady in the secondary and sophomore Jake McGee at tight end.
All are in their second year at a new position, and how they’ve adjusted will go a long way toward determining whether the Cavaliers can make consecutive bowl game appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005.
That all of these former quarterbacks are involved in the passing game in some form is no accident, either.
“This day and age, quarterbacks are doing a lot at the high school level. They had the ball in their hands every snap and we’ve been the beneficiary of that,” said former Virginia quarterback Shawn Moore, who coached the team’s wideouts last season and is currently serving as tight ends coach. “The one thing that they bring to the game is their coverage recognition and having viewed the game as a quarterback.”
Terrell, who played quarterback at Osbourn High in Manassas, said it has been a somewhat natural progression to wide receiver because “you had to see everything” as a quarterback, from the alignments of the defense to the responsibilities of his own offensive teammates. But Jennings admitted he didn’t turn a corner in his development as a receiver until catching his lone touchdown of the year against Miami last November. Terrell and Jennings combined for 28 catches, 297 yards and two touchdowns during their initial campaign at wide receiver.
This season, though, Virginia is counting on the duo to step into more prominent roles after the graduation of leading wide receiver Kris Burd. They will be expected to provide the sort of deep threat this offense hasn’t possessed since offensive coordinator Bill Lazor arrived two years ago. Terrell will primarily operate out of the slot and return punts, while Jennings will be the No. 2 receiver alongside junior Tim Smith and return kickoffs.
“I think it brings a leadership quality. When you play quarterback in high school, you kind of have to control the offense. You have to control the tempo and the team,” Jennings said. “Having so many former QBs on the field at once, we can all be leaders when we have to. I think that’ll work well. It brings a little smartness to it.”
The secondary is where those qualities could come most in handy. The Cavaliers lost three starters in the defensive backfield to graduation, and they are counting on Harris and Canady to make impacts right away.
Canady, a freshman who played quarterback and wide receiver at Varina High outside Richmond, has been something of a surprise this training camp. He moved past sophomore Drequan Hoskey for the cornerback spot opposite sophomore Demetrious Nicholson on the first day of preseason practice.
To prepare for the rigors of a new position, Canady spent his spring and summer matching up against the same high school receivers he had completed passes to last fall. So when cornerbacks coach Chip West called his name to step in with the first-team defense last week, “there wasn’t any of that shyness stuff,” Canady said.
“He understands the possible routes that can be run. Right now, he’s fearless,” Coach Mike London said of Canady. “The bad thing is, sometimes routes aren’t what they appear to be. I think that’s part of the learning curve he’ll get in college ball, but it definitely helped him having the ability to be a quarterback.”