Nations: Changes keep coming for Cavs

By Jeff Nations

The quarterback position recently became a bit clearer for the University of Virginia’s football team, and maybe that’s a positive for the rebuilding Cavaliers.

Last week, the school announced that much-heralded Alabama transfer Phillip Sims is ineligible and will no longer be enrolled at the school following the summer semester. This, just a few months after former UVa. starter Michael Rocco announced his own plans to leave, ultimately transferring to Richmond to play for his uncle, Spiders head coach Danny Rocco.

So since last December, the Cavaliers have lost the only two quarterbacks on the roster who attempted a pass during last season’s dismal 4-8 campaign.

Addition by subtraction? Perhaps, but it certainly does little to stabilize that crucial position heading into coach Mike London’s fourth season at the helm. It had seemed that Rocco was the answer during Virginia’s turnaround 2011 season, when the Cavaliers went 8-5 and played Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. London was the ACC’s Coach of the Year following that season, and Rocco had much to do with that success. He started all 13 games for the Cavs, passing for 2,671 yards and 13 touchdowns after emerging as the clear starter following a freshman season in which he split time as part of a three-way rotation along with Marc Verica and former Sherando standout Ross Metheny (who also transferred, following that 2011 campaign, to South Alabama).

Rocco entered this past season as the clear-cut starter, or so he might have thought. The addition of Sims last May made that assumption a bit more cloudy, despite repeated assertions by London that Rocco remained Virginia’s starting quarterback. Sims, like Rocco an in-state product with a decidedly higher-profile resume as a one-time nationally regarded prep recruit out of Chesapeake’s Oscar Smith High School, seemed too good to pass up when he issued a statement saying he needed to be closer to home to support his family.

The NCAA obligingly waived the one-year transfer rule, meaning Sims could play immediately and had three years of eligibility left. That likely didn’t sit well with Rocco, no matter what statements he or London might have made about the benefits of healthy competition.

Rocco did open last season as Virginia’s starter, and at first all seemed well. After leading the Cavs to an easy season-opening victory over Richmond, Rocco followed with a decent effort against Penn State in a game Virginia was fortunate to win thanks to the Nittany Lions’ wretched kicking game.

In last season’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech, Rocco had a rough go of it and was replaced by Sims in the fourth quarter of that eventual blowout loss. Rocco struggled again in a loss to TCU the next week, and Sims replaced him. The following week against lightly-regarded Louisiana Tech, Rocco passed for 265 first-half yards and a pair of touchdowns, but also delivered two of his three interceptions early in the third quarter. That was enough for London, who inserted Sims in the second half and watched the Tide transfer nearly lead the Cavs back in an eventual 44-38 loss.

The following week, Sims was the starter. That didn’t work so well, either, as the Cavaliers lost their next three with Sims starting, then salvaged his fourth start when Rocco came on in relief to lead Virginia past North Carolina State.

Rocco started the following week and looked strong with a 300-yard passing effort in a win over Miami, but had to share time with Sims the next week against North Carolina and in a season-ending 17-14 loss to Virginia Tech.

Within weeks, Rocco was gone, ostensibly frustrated by London’s apparent quick trigger and penchant for getting Sims on the field. Whether the writing was on the wall or not, and you have to figure it was, Rocco was done looking over his shoulder.

Rocco’s gone now, and so is Sims. In the latter’s case, the issue seems to have disintegrated soon after last season.

“The thing we tell the young men who come to the University of Virginia to receive a world-class education and play for our football program is pretty simple,” London said in a school news release last week. “Go to class. Show class and treat people with dignity and respect. Those directions are pretty easy to follow and they will lead you on a path of success.

“When an individual strays from those directions, it is very disappointing to me. Phillip Sims did not make the commitment he needed to succeed here.”

That announcement was the culmination of a stunning fall for Sims, almost as sudden as his rise to starter last year. By the end of April’s annual spring game, Sims was third on the Cavs’ quarterback depth chart behind David Watford — who saw time as Rocco’s backup in 2011, but was redshirted last year — and redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert.

Watford has the edge in experience, having played in 10 games while completing 30 of 74 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. That’s reassuring, but it’s hardly the experience Rocco could have supplied this season had he remained in Charlottesville.

You’ll remember, too, that on the same day Rocco declared his decision to leave, London announced that four members of his coaching staff, including associate head coach/defensive coordinator Jim Reid, had been let go by the school.

There’s been lots of changes since last season, that’s for certain. Some of that change was necessary, like the Sims dismissal. Some was perhaps unavoidable, like Rocco’s transfer. At some point, though, the roster and the coaching staff need to stabilize for the Cavaliers to prove that 2011 wasn’t a one-hit wonder for London.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>