From the moment Virginia quarterback Phillip Sims was granted a waiver by the NCAA in July to play this year, many Cavaliers fans viewed his ascension to the starting role as preordained.
They flooded message boards and talk radio anointing the ballyhooed Alabama transfer — who set Virginia state passing records in high school — as the new face of a team coming off its first bowl appearance since 2007.
But what most overlook, especially now that Sims on Saturday will assume the role they all foresaw, is how new this relationship between player and school still is, and how the feeling-out process that took place over the past two months could very well be the key to Sims’s success going forward.
“He didn’t come here saying: ‘I’m from Alabama. I’m this, I’m that,’ ” Coach Mike London said this week in advance of his team’s game at Duke. “He came in and adapted to the team culture here. Guys have accepted him. He’s ingratiated himself to his teammates. Didn’t come in with a lot of bravado, pounding his chest. He just came in and worked, tried to learn the way we do things here.”
Entering training camp, Virginia knew little about Sims outside of his prolific high school exploits and his time at Alabama.
London’s observations were mostly based off sitting at the same table as Sims and his family at a banquet in Richmond following the 2009 high school season. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had never even seen Sims throw the ball until the first day of fall practice.
About the only insight his new teammates had came from running back Perry Jones and wide receiver Tim Smith, who played alongside Sims at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va.
So while the outside world was stirring up a debate over whether Sims would replace incumbent quarterback Michael Rocco, Sims was simply trying to fit in. The response he received from his coaches and teammates buoyed him as he learned a new offense with new terminology.
“Nobody asked me to come in and be some superstar or be anything like that. Everybody just wanted me to feel comfortable,” said Sims, who was granted immediate eligibility at Virginia by the NCAA through a medical hardship waiver related to his father’s heart condition. “Nobody pushed me to come in and you’ve got to be perfect on Day 1.”
Sims estimates that he knows more than 90 percent of Virginia’s playbook, but London indicated this week that Sims’s ascension to the top of the quarterback depth chart had more to do with performance. The redshirt junior has five touchdowns and no interceptions in backup duty, and had his most impressive performance to date by nearly leading the Cavaliers back from 20 points down last Saturday against Louisiana Tech.
Rocco has eight interceptions — the most by an ACC quarterback — and Sims has the stronger arm. Safeties coach Anthony Poindexter said whenever Sims is taking snaps in practice, he tells his players, “ ‘Everybody get ready for the deep one.’ He can put it in there. The kid got a good arm.”
“He gives off that demeanor, especially with his body language, that every game, whether he’s the starter or not, he’s trying to make the best of it,” left tackle Oday Aboushi added.
But Sims and London insist there is no animosity now that Rocco has been demoted.
“Everybody makes this out to be just two guys that don’t really like each other situation. But that’s definitely not the case,” Sims said. “He’s doing everything the coaches have asked [of] him and we’re all about winning right now. That’s the attitude both me and Rocco have took towards this situation and we’re just looking out for the best interest of the team.”
In that regard, Sims benefited from his time at Alabama. Despite his reputation out of high school, Sims redshirted his first year on campus and was then beat out by AJ McCarron as the Crimson Tide went on to win the BCS championship last season. Saturday will be his first career start as a college quarterback.
Sims called losing the job at Alabama “disappointing . . . but it was also a learning experience.”
Though he out-performed Rocco last week, Sims wouldn’t overly laud his own play or demand more snaps when asked about a potential quarterback change.
Like he has since arriving in Charlottesville, Sims treaded lightly, hopeful he wouldn’t stick out for the wrong reasons. Former Virginia quarterback Shawn Moore called it “the most impressive thing I’ve seen from the young man.”
“Nobody’s asking me to go out and be Superman or be Michael Vick or Peyton Manning or anybody like that,” Sims said. “I’m just being asked to be Phillip Sims and go out there and do the things that I’ve been taught to do within this offense and help my team win and move the ball offensively.”