RICHMOND — They may be on their second stint as teammates, but Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco admit they wouldn’t ordinarily be particularly close.
Strauss is “that Miami lifestyle,” Rocco said of the Key Biscayne, Fla., native, and a prankster in the Richmond football team locker room. Rocco is just “a very conservative guy brought up differently than me,” Strauss admitted.
But the two redshirt senior signal callers have the same view on at least one topic: How poorly Virginia dealt with quarterbacks during their time together in Charlottesville.
“It’s not an ideal situation over there, how they’ve handled their quarterbacks. I don’t think they’ve handled it the right way,” Strauss said last month. “Just some of the reasons for me not getting a chance or some other person just not getting on the field didn’t make any sense to me. . . .
“I’d be lying to you if I said [Virginia] wasn’t the biggest game of my life right now.”
It had been known for months that Saturday’s matchup between the Cavaliers and Football Championship Subdivision foe Richmond would feature the bizarre backdrop of two former Virginia quarterbacks, both now redshirt seniors, facing their former school.But the story line became more convoluted this past weekend, when Virginia Coach Mike London surprisingly benched starting quarterback Greyson Lambert in favor of redshirt freshman Matt Johns in the team’s season opener and then said Monday both Johns and Lambert will play against the Spiders this week.
It’s the same sort of scenario that drove Rocco away from Charlottesville less than two years ago.
After spearheading Virginia’s surge through the end of the 2011 season, Rocco expected to be a clear-cut starter entering the next fall. But the arrival of Alabama transfer Phillip Sims eventually forced Rocco to split snaps as Virginia stumbled to a 4-8 record.
“It’s never easy coming off the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a good season and kind of the best one in a long time for the program and coming into a summer and there’s a new quarterback,” Rocco said in an interview last month. “You always know there’s going to be competition, but I felt the lack of it was ‘My team.’ It was tough to re-gather my confidence a little bit.”
Eight days after the 2012 season ended, Rocco announced he would be transferring to another school. Only that didn’t go as planned, either.
Rocco had not completed his undergraduate degree from Virginia yet, meaning he would have to sit out one year at another Football Bowl Subdivision school. His family initially thought transferring to an FCS school would give him immediate eligibility. Going to Richmond — where his uncle, Danny Rocco, is the head coach — seemed a natural fit.
But once Rocco arrived at Richmond, it became clear an NCAA rule precluded him from playing right away because he transferred from an FBS school to the FCS with just one year of eligibility remaining. Rocco’s waiver request and appeal to the NCAA were also denied.
Back in Charlottesville, Sims was kicked off Virginia’s football team for academic reasons after spring practice, opening the door for the player Rocco beat out in 2011 (David Watford) to win the starting quarterback job last season.
Rocco said the chain of events naturally made him wonder, “Wow. What could’ve been? What should’ve been?”
“I think the feeling that he had at the end at Virginia was that they kind of don’t really want him to be the quarterback,” Danny Rocco said. “So I don’t think it would have mattered who left or what the dynamics were.”
Unlike Michael Rocco, Strauss never even registered a pass attempt during his two seasons at Virginia. That led Strauss to nearby Richmond, where he is now 11-6 as a starting quarterback since taking over the job in the final four games of the 2012 season.
“I started losing the love for the game,” he said after a practice last month. “At that point, I felt I had to get out.”
Strauss, who had a touchdown pass in his collegiate debut when Richmond opened the 2012 season against Virginia at Scott Stadium, also set new school records for completions, yards and touchdowns last year when the Spiders ended a 6-6 campaign with four straight wins.
He insists Rocco’s appearance on the depth chart is not uncomfortable, that he trusts Danny Rocco’s decision to play two signal callers this season. When Richmond opened the season with a 55-10 win over Morehead State on Saturday, Strauss started and threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns. Rocco completed nine of his 13 passes for 117 yards, one touchdown and one interception in three series.
But in a nod to their shared history, Danny Rocco will send both quarterbacks out for the opening coin toss after each requested to be game captains at Virginia, just the latest twist to the odd circumstances surrounding Saturday’s game.
“They deserve it,” Danny Rocco said last month. “They both deserve that opportunity to go out there to midfield there in Charlottesville where they both started their career.”