CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Michael Rocco is Virginia’s quarterback and team leader.
But he’s not the Cavaliers’ only reliable signal-caller heading into the season.
Phillip Sims, a transfer from Alabama who was once among the nation’s top recruiting targets, has been cleared to play. David Watford took some snaps in key situations before the staff turned to Rocco about midway through last season.
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Coach Mike London said the quarterback confidence probably improved with the arrival of Sims, who threw for 10,725 yards and 119 TDs in high school.
“They’re confident,” London said of his QBs, “and probably the biggest thing, the players we have are confident in our quarterback position for probably the first time in a while.”
With Rocco heading the list.
“You look at last year, every game, Rocco got better,” 6-foot-6. 335-poound offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “He got better and this summer, just being around this summer, he changed his whole demeanor. He looks different. He walks around different. He’s a leader.
“That’s a guy that you want to play for.”
Rocco said the arrival of Sims played a role in his transformation.
“I believe that I’m the starting quarterback and the leader of this team,” Rocco said. “When he came in, it just kind of fueled me even more to be a competitor and win the job outright.”
Rocco led the Cavaliers to an 8-5 record and their first bowl game since 2007. Now they want more.
This season, he’s got six fellow starters back on offense, including tackles Moses and the 6-6, 310-pound Oday Aboushi, tailback Perry Jones, wide receiver Tim Smith and tight end Colter Phillips.
There are also plenty of other options to look for offensively.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said receivers like Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, both of whom gained experience last season, can make some exciting things happen with more chances to get their hands on the ball.
“I feel like we have more players that we know can contribute with the ball in their hands than we have the last two years,” Lazor said. “We know because we’ve seen them do it on the practice field over and over.”
A trio of tight ends — Phillips, Paul Freedman and Jeremiah Mathis — will be bolstered this year by the addition of Jake McGee, a 6-5, 235-pounder with wide receiver speed who repeatedly gave the Virginia secondary problems during fall workouts.
Jones, the leader of a logjam at tailback that includes Kevin Parks, Clifton Richardson and Khalek Shepherd, enjoyed the turnaround last season — but not the way the season ended.
Virginia played rival Virginia Tech with a chance to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC championship, but lost 38-0. The Cavaliers lost 43-24 to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“You never want to end a season on two losses,” Jones said.
Or think one turnaround season — Virginia won four games in 2010 — proves anything.
Over the summer, participation in weight training, conditioning and 7-on-7 drills was higher than at any point in recent years, several players said, motivated by a desire to keep building.
“I think the commitment level was through the roof,” linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “We got a new weight room and after the season … we really looked forward to just getting after it.”
Reynolds and fellow linebacker Steve Greer return to anchor the middle of the defense, along with linebacker Henry Coley. They will play behind a defensive front that has four players back with significant experience, and several younger players that will push to be in the mix.
The area of chief concern on defense is in the secondary, where sophomore Demetrious Nicholson is the veteran, having started all last season. He’s likely to be joined in the backfield by fellow sophomores Drequan Hoskey, Anthony Harris and Brandon Phelps, all of whom gained some experience last season, but have yet to show they can hold down fulltime roles.
“I think talent-wise, they have the skill and the talent to do it. What’s missing is the experience of playing defensive back in a game and they’ll get it early on,” London said.
Virginia opens against Richmond and Penn State before playing at Georgia Tech and TCU. Its closing stretch has home games against Miami and North Carolina and a visit to Virginia Tech.