CHARLOTTESVILLE – North Carolina had seven defenders on the line of scrimmage, but that wasn’t a surprise because it was third and one and Virginia tailback Kevin Parks was lined up in the I-formation.
The Tar Heels brought two men off the right edge at the snap, but that wasn’t a surprise, either. Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco was in his third career start. If he kept the ball, a defensive end and a linebacker were going to be in his face.
Rocco turned left to fake a handoff to Parks before rolling right. He evaded the linebacker and tossed a floating pass over the outstretched arms of the defensive end into the hands of fullback Max Milien, who then sprinted 41 yards for Rocco’s first touchdown pass of the season.
“Nobody was really expecting training camp Rocco to make that play,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said. “But he made it, so I feel like he’s definitely growing.”
For much of the season’s first three games, Virginia’s passing game revealed little beyond its most basic flavors. Simple drop-backs, screen passes and check-downs into the flat filled the call sheet. But after fostering Rocco’s confidence and comfort level in his new role, the Cavaliers (2-1) will look to expand his responsibilities and delve deeper into their playbook beginning Saturday when they host Southern Mississippi (2-1).
Virginia lost its ACC opener, 28-17, at North Carolina on Sept. 17, but the Cavaliers drew valuable insights from the experience, Coach Mike London said. They learned their offensive line and run game could thrive against one of the conference’s top defenses, and consequently, they discerned it was time for their passing game to take the next step in its development.
That, then, will put more pressure on Rocco, and plays such as the touchdown throw to Milien reinforced to his coaches and teammates that he’s ready for the challenge. Rocco has not been spectacular in his first three starts, but he has done nearly everything that’s been asked of him.
“There were a couple of plays out there that showed the presence of what a quarterback has to do,” London said. “I did think he took a step forward [against North Carolina] in leading the team and doing some of the things that we’ve asked him to do.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said the first big step in Rocco’s maturation as a starting quarterback was completing his first 11 passes and not recording a turnover during Virginia’s season-opening 40-3 win over William & Mary on Sept. 3.
The next step, Lazor said, was the 15-play drive Rocco orchestrated during the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ 34-31 victory Sept. 10 at Indiana. He capped that series by completing a pass for a two-point conversion that tied the score.
“Those things are going to happen, and they’re going to surprise you when they happen just because you’re going to get a look and it’s just going to be the right time to make a play,” Rocco said. “They’re just going to come up in the game of football, and you’ve just got to respond to it. . . . I’m growing in being the leader of this offense, and I’m trying to respond the best I can.”
Burd said Rocco has demonstrated more “swagger” around the team — on the field and off — of late. Burd sees it in the huddle during practices and at the table during pregame meals, the upright posture of someone secure in his position.
“It might not be the flamboyant swagger, but he definitely has a swagger about him,” Burd said of his soft-spoken quarterback. “It’s more of a you’ve got to look at him and feel the swagger more than hear it. His body language is more commanding. He just has a grasp of the situation more week-by-week.”
Late in the fourth quarter at North Carolina, Rocco dropped back to pass on fourth and 10 and connected with wideout Tim Smith down the left sideline for a 32-yard gain.
“We need to do that more often,” London said. “We need to take more shots and stretch the field.”
Rocco threw an interception on the next play. This is the tantalizing allure of a young, inexperienced player: brilliant one play, confounding the next. So long as Rocco — and the offense — continue to progress, the Cavaliers will endure his occasional mistakes.
“As the offense gets easier and you get more confident and comfortable in it, you begin to want to call plays where you know you’re going to make a big play,” Rocco said. “I don’t carry myself any differently in the way that I act and the way that I lead. I’m still who I am. But when my confidence levels grow, so does the whole team’s confidence level.”