CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia quarterback David Watford came to the sideline during the first half at against Georgia Tech on Saturday and sought out offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild.
He wanted Fairchild to “keep 20 and 6 in the game,” referring to wide receivers Tim Smith and Darius Jennings by the jerseys they wear. The two veterans had lost their starting jobs to freshmen in recent weeks, relegated to special teams duty and sporadic playing time on offense as Virginia’s five-game losing streak grew longer.
In the moment, Watford was playing a hunch based on a strong week of practice and a quick start by Smith and Jennings. By Monday, though, he could admit to have seen a clue as to what would follow in Virginia’s 35-25 loss to the Yellow Jackets: a school-record 43 completions and 61 pass attempts, a career-high 376 passing yards and the rebirth of a receiving duo.
“They were just like feeling it and I could tell when they came in the huddle, just their presence, how they carried themselves on the field, and that was just giving me confidence,” Watford said. “So I said, ‘Keep them in the game, so I can get them the ball.’ ”
When the afternoon was over, Smith had hauled in a career-high 10 catches for 151 yards and Jennings had a career-high 13 receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns. They became the first receiving duo in program history to record 10 or more catches in the same game.
It was a stunning reversal for a position that had become a surprising weak spot for the Cavaliers this season. The team’s wide receivers had 22 catches in the four games entering the Georgia Tech contest, including just three when Virginia blew a 22-0 lead against Duke two weeks ago. Virginia has the fewest passing plays of 20 or more yards (15) in the ACC this season.
Smith, a senior, and Jennings, who led all Cavaliers’ receivers with 568 yards as a sophomore in 2012, had combined for just 28 receptions before last weekend.
“We’ve been taking a lot of criticism at the receiving position, so we took it upon ourselves to make a statement,” Smith said.
It was just last week that position coach Marques Hagans noted Smith was “frustrated” at how his final season in Charlottesville had played out to that point. He also cautioned that Jennings’s transition from high school quarterback to wide receiver is still ongoing and more difficult than many presume.
But in the aftermath of their career days against the Yellow Jackets, Coach Mike London has raved about how Smith and Jennings “could have packed it in, but they decided to turn the other way and practice and plan and play hard.”
“I knew it before it was gonna happen, because in practice, you could just tell from their intensity, how focused they were, how sharp they were with their routes, how they just caught the ball,” Watford said. “Passes that were too low, too high, behind them, they were just making great plays every practice and every period. So I was like, I knew those guys were gonna have big games and they did take it personally and that was the message coach wanted to get across to them and just fire them up and it really worked.”
The two receivers returned to the top of the depth chart this week, and London hopes their resurgence will serve as an example for the rest of the team as it prepares to face No. 9 Clemson on Saturday.
Jennings is now listed as Virginia’s top slot receiver, a spot he hadn’t played often previously. But it allows him to better take advantage of his quickness and avoid contact near the line of scrimmage.
He’s just glad Watford hadn’t forgotten about him.
“I haven’t been as productive as I would have liked or the team would have liked all season. There have been some bumps in the road. This was just a point to get back on track,” Jennings said Saturday. “I’ve been working my butt off in practice and just putting forth my best effort. You can see that in the connections between David and the receivers at this point.”