It was only three years ago that Watford was the dual-threat signal-caller for Hampton High and Romero was the sack artist at rival Phoebus. But after Watford’s sluggish start to this season, his first as the Cavaliers’ starting signal-caller, Romero thought a reminder was needed.
“Just trust your speed, like we were in high school,” Romero said.
Watford has gotten plenty of advice over the past month. By his own estimation, he hasn’t “performed up to par” leading the Cavaliers’ offense through three games.
He has repeatedly taken the blame for Virginia’s slow starts and early-season scoring struggles, citing his turnovers (six interceptions, one fumble and just four touchdowns) and indecision running first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s new scheme.
On Saturday, Watford will experience a new first as a starter: His first ACC game and first road game at Pittsburgh, a team that scored 58 points a week ago in a win over Duke. The good news, though, is that he seems keenly aware of what’s holding back his progress at this point.
“As a quarterback, you have to just stay calm and stay poised and just be able to react to what you see,” Watford said this week. “You don’t want to be out there thinking that much, and that’s what I was doing out there: Thinking about everything instead of reacting to what I see, so I just have to slow it down in my mind.”
In recent weeks, Fairchild has tried to better tailor his offense to Watford’s strengths, encouraging him to use his legs more and dialing up more deep passes in practice. In last Saturday’s 49-0 blowout of VMI, a Football Championship Subdivision program without a winning season since 1981, those adjustments paid dividends.
Watford utilized the read option out of a pistol formation for the first time, reading the defense before deciding whether to hand off the ball or keep it himself. He’s still adjusting to the new scheme, because at Hampton High he was told to keep the ball every time, given his speed. Watford talked Monday of hesitating as he looked for lanes, rather than just running. Fairchild constantly tells Watford, “You’re fast for a reason.”
“Once he understands certain down and distances and situations, he’ll feel more comfortable and obliged to run,” said Marques Hagans, Watford’s cousin and Virginia wide receivers coach who also was a dual-threat quarterback for the Cavaliers earlier this century. “I think he’s doing a great job. He’ll feel his way as the season goes along and understand when he should run and when he shouldn’t.”
Perhaps more noteworthy is that Watford also connected with wide receiver Tim Smith on a 38-yard touchdown pass last week, Virginia’s longest reception of the year. He called it “a relief” and “a breath of fresh air.”
Through three games, Watford is completing 66.3 percent of his passes but averaging just 4.9 yards per attempt.
“I can’t lie. I have struggled with that, just being able to throw the ball downfield,” Watford said. “It’s not that I lack the confidence or we don’t have the playmakers. It’s just something you need to work on. People see it on Sundays or on Saturdays, just throwing the ball and catching it, but there’s a lot more behind it than that.”
Watford said that while watching game film, he’s noticed that he often tries to force balls into double coverage rather than hit his check-down receiver. So he asked Fairchild to call plays from the field, instead of the coaches’ box, after Virginia’s season-opening win over BYU because “being able to see each other eye to eye and be able to talk on the sideline constantly . . . just makes the flow of the game easier for me.”
Watford has also sought advice from other dynamic quarterbacks who have emerged from the Tidewater area, noting this week that he communicates as often as possible with former Virginia quarterback Aaron Brooks, former Virginia Tech quarterbacks Michael Vick and Tyrod Taylor, and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd.
Watford claims to feel no pressure to live up to those names, but he’d like his to eventually be mentioned in the same “elite category.” It’s part of the reason he has been so quick to take the blame this season, and his teammates don’t seem to mind that one bit.
“I don’t know if he’s too hard on himself. I mean, I think it’s a good thing for somebody to strive to be great,” tight end Jake McGee said. “If he wants to become a big-time quarterback and take it to the next level, he’s gonna need to ask those things of himself. . . . It’s something you do like hearing sitting in the room. As the leader of your offense and a leader on this team, you want to hear him strive to be as good as he can and not ever be happy with just being average.”