Quarterback Carousel Continues for Virginia Cavaliers

By Justine Hendricks


The Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to be one of the up-and-coming teams in the ACC, but midway through 2012, they’re 2-5 and facing the possibility they might miss a bowl game.

What’s behind the quick turn in the wrong direction?

Part of the problem is inconsistency at quarterback – inconsistency in how the quarterback plays, but also in which quarterback plays.

Junior Michael Rocco was named the starter at the beginning of the year; he was the starter for the second half of last season, and he had more experience in the program than transfer Phillip Sims.

Rocco was the starter through the first five games before Coach Mike London decided to give Sims a shot. The transfer, who obtained a waiver that allowed him to be eligible this season, is reportedly more athletic, with a stronger arm.

Right now, though, he’s 0-2 as the starter, and he was removed from the end of Saturday’s game in favor of Rocco, who couldn’t quite get  the win.

London says Sims will start again this weekend against Wake Forestbut would that still be the case if Rocco had been able to seal the deal against Maryland on Saturday? Rocco came in and threw a touchdown to pull the Cavaliers within a score, but he was 0-for-4 on UVA’s final possession, and he badly overthrew a wide open receiver.

Maryland coach Randy Edsall told reporters he thought Rocco was clearly the better pure passer, but London insists Sims is still the guy for the job. But for how long?

In two years at UVA, London has shown a Spurrier-like tendency to juggle signal callers.

In 2011, Rocco and backup David Watford split starts for the first half of the season. Watford, who has a different skillset, still played in parts of nearly every game last year.

Both Rocco and Sims have played in every game this season. At first, Sims came in later in games, when the outcome was already decided. In the third game of the year, however, Rocco was pulled in the third quarter in favor of Sims. After Sims fumbled a snap, Rocco went back in and ultimately won the game.

London maintained the move was intended to give Rocco a few series to step back, watch from the sidelines, and regroup. It worked in that situation, but it may have done a number on the former starter’s psyche.

Like a receiver who hears footsteps and drops the ball, Rocco became less effective after he was briefly replaced. The following week, he had his worst game of 2012, completing just 46.4% of his passes – nearly 15% fewer than in any other game he started – and he threw two interceptions but no touchdowns.

Rocco is capable of being a good (but maybe not great) quarterback for the Cavaliers. He got the job done last season, and his stats improved as the year went on, but he hasn’t had the same confidence and command he was beginning to show in the back half of 2011.

With the team unlikely to turn things around in time to become bowl eligible, many are wondering if London’s commitment to playing Sims means the coach has already started looking ahead to 2013.

Sims has a big arm but has been struggling to hit his receivers, and since he has more eligibility remaining, the coach might be giving the young quarterback time to work through his growing pains when the team has little on the line.

Sims has six touchdowns and three interceptions on the season, but in the two games he started, he has just one touchdown, but all three of those interceptions. On the season, he’s completing 53.4% of his passes for 747 yards, but he’s less accurate (48.2%) as a starter.

Rocco, on the other hand, has seven touchdowns and eight interceptions, but he’s completing about 60% of his passes, whether or not he’s starting.

Neither has been able to get the job done, though, because they haven’t put enough points on the board. The Cavaliers are 18th in passing yardage, but even though Virginia gained more total yards than its last three opponents – Louisiana Tech, Duke, and Maryland – the team lost all three games.

The inconsistent (or consistently mediocre) play at quarterback isn’t Virginia’s only weakness, but it’s part of the reason the Cavaliers dropped their last five – and it won’t improve until the coaching staff puts its complete trust in one quarterback.

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