CHARLOTTESVILLE — Quarterback David Watford had been mostly relegated to the sideline during the 11-on-11 portion of Virginia’s football practice Wednesday night, a few plays with the third-team offense his only action as he trotted onto the field with the clock closing in on 9 p.m.
Watford rolled left at the snap of the ball and fired a scorching pass across his body, through traffic and into the arms of wide receiver Andre Levrone in the back corner of the end zone. It elicited oohs and ahhs from teammates, and was followed by a beautiful deep ball down the sideline from Watford to Levrone.
But a few minutes later, Watford could only offer a sheepish shrug about his practice feats, well aware two throws won’t be enough to earn his spot in the starting lineup back — no matter how defiant he may be.
“I’m a quarterback,” Watford said. “I’m not changing.”
Over the course of just 12 months, Watford has gone from being anointed the face of the Virginia football program to an afterthought.
The junior started every game at quarterback as the Cavaliers stumbled to a 2-10 record in 2013, struggling with his accuracy and decision making en route to an ACC-high 15 interceptions. By the end of spring practice in May, Watford had lost the starting job to redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert and his status as a team captain due to an off-field incident neither he nor Coach Mike London were willing to discuss specifically.
But with the spotlight shifting to Lambert, Watford refuses to give up hope that he can again be the Cavaliers’ starting signal caller.
“I just take it as a humbling experience, trying to get better and work on being the best I can be to help the team and do whatever I can,” said Watford, who has watched some of his second team repetitions go to sophomore Matt Johns this week. “I don’t really try to look down on it or anything. I try to take it all in stride and try to make the best out of it. . . . It’s going to be a long season and a long camp and you never know what might happen.”
The opening days of the preseason have done little to dissuade the assumption that Lambert will start at quarterback when Virginia faces UCLA to open the regular season on Aug. 30, but London indicated Wednesday that Watford is on better footing within the program than he was this spring.
“His ability to earn the trust of me and his teammates, he’s doing that and he’s done that and now it’s about the play on the field,” London said. “I have no doubt about David’s resolve and what he wants to be and making sure that he can help this team win. . . . Don’t count David Watford out.”
Watford, though, definitively ruled out moving to wide receiver Wednesday, although he did spend a few practices at the position during spring practice.
The Hampton native instead traveled to San Diego to train with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield this offseason. He worked on mechanics to improve accuracy, but the experience also proved to be mental rehabilitation after enduring the criticism of 2013.
“He just helped me hone my skills and just helped me get my confidence to where it needed to be and just believing in myself and what I can do,” Watford said of Whitfield. “I think it’s the biggest thing for me . . . because a lot of times last year, certain situations would go on and sometimes doubt would creep into my head.”
Watford maintains he never considered transferring this offseason. But even his family members seem aware of the uphill battle he now faces at this point.
“If a job that he wants back is lost, it’s on him,” said Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, Watford’s cousin. “He’s got to go fight, compete and find a way to get it back.”