offensive coordinator Bill Lazor claims to have no idea, or opinion, on who will be the Cavaliers' starting quarterback this season. Suffice to say, Michael Rocco does.
"I believe it's my job to lose," the incumbent said Friday at the team's preseason media gathering, "and I'm not going to lose it."
Precisely what Lazor and head coach
want to hear with practice set to commence Monday. But not what many fans expect to occur since the arrival of renowned
transfer Phillip Sims.
Indeed, some conspiracy buffs contend London has assured Sims the gig. After all, they theorize, Sims didn't leave the reigning national champion Crimson Tide, where he was AJ McCarron's backup in 2011, to be an understudy at Virginia.
Believe what you must, but that doesn't compute.
No coach can afford to award the sport's most critical position out of blind loyalty. It's a certain formula for losing games, the locker room and your job.
With his improvement on the field and presence off the field, Rocco, a junior, has earned the locker room's respect. Not to suggest he's
or Logan Thomas. He's not. He ranked eighth among
quarterbacks last season in pass efficiency.
But Rocco did improve markedly. He engineered a last-ditch, 75-yard drive that produced the winning touchdown at
. He threw for a career-best 312 yards in the
"He's a guy you can count on," tailback Kevin Parks said. "He's a guy who's always doing the right thing."
"You look at last season," offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. "Rocco got better day in and day out."
And how did Rocco respond last month to the news that, thanks to an
hardship waiver, Sims is eligible this season?
"He took it like a man," Moses said. "He got better."
Rocco's best last season came after London and Lazor stopped alternating him with freshman
of Hampton. The change sparked road victories over
and Florida State that propelled the Cavaliers to an 8-5 record, their best since 2007.
"For me, it's always a competition," Rocco said. "I felt like when (Sims) came in really nothing changed from my point of view. I believe I'm the starting quarterback and the leader of this team. … I believe (the players) think of me as the leader of this team, too. They tell me that. They reassure me."
Given the complexity of Lazor's pro-style offense and the short preparation time, my hunch is Rocco starts the opener Sept. 1 against Richmond, coached by Rocco's uncle, former Virginia assistant and Liberty big whistle Danny Rocco.
But Rocco had better produce, and quickly. If not, Sims or Watford will take over as the Cavaliers tackle consecutive tests against Penn State,
and Texas Christian, the latter two on the road.
"I don't know what will happen," Lazor said. "I don't have an opinion today because I don't have to. So I'll just let it play. It's hard enough when you have to decide."
Neither Lazor nor London wants a repeat of 2011's uncertainty. They want to enter the season firm and confident in their choice.
That choice was clear until Sims arrived with three seasons of eligibility remaining. A consensus All-American at Chesapeake's Oscar Smith High, he set state records for career passing yards (10,725) and touchdown passes (119), and led the Tigers to the 2008 Division 6 state championship.
"When you see a big name like Phil Sims come in, yeah, I can see why you guys are intrigued," Rocco said. "So are we. We're excited to get another good player as well. … (But) I haven't changed my approach at all."
Rocco acknowledged some initial "confusion" when Sims transferred, "but I trust Coach's decision-making. … We welcomed him when he came and we've all worked hard together. I figure the competition will make us all better quarterbacks."
As always, Rocco has leaned on his football family. His father, Frank, coached him at Lynchburg's Liberty Christian Academy, and his Uncle Danny recruited him while at Liberty University.
"They're always in my ear," Rocco said. "They always have good things to say. … They do a great job of keeping me consistent. … My dad and uncle really did a great job encouraging me."
Now Rocco finds himself encouraging the competition.
"We talk a lot," he said of Sims. "He's two lockers down from me. … He's always asking questions. … I'm very open to help him. I don't want there to be any hard feelings or distant relationship. We're all teammates here. I know he's been at Alabama where they've won a national championship. But our offense is different than Alabama's, so it's going to be tough to learn."
Sims isn't the only one going to school. Virginia's coaches are, too. They've never seen Sims in person, and there's little tape of him from Alabama.
How does he respond to criticism? What's his demeanor in the huddle? Can he shake off an interception and blindside sack?
Sure, he was dominant in high school. But so were countless others who never made a dent in college football.
"Coaching in the
, I learned a long time ago it's critical to see a guy throw in person to evaluate him," Lazor said. "How's that ball come out of his hand?"
Lazor is well-versed in Rocco and Watford and has " great faith in the kind of summer those two guys had. There's so much more that I know this year. Of course, all the questions are about the one thing (Sims) I don't know."
Rocco knows this: The opener is Sept. 1, and he expects to start.
"It's 29 days away," he said. "Not that I'm counting."