Watford, True Freshmen Will Play In 2011

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Quarterback David Watford will play this season as a true freshman.

Mike London’s opinion about the 2011 recruiting class has been steady. The true freshmen came to Virginia to play and if the youngsters can help the Cavaliers win now, then they will play. The chorus didn’t change with the season’s first game-week press conference. In fact, London said that as many as 10 to 12 true freshmen, including quarterback David Watford , “will play” this season at UVa.

In total, 8 true freshmen and 8 redshirt freshmen own spots on the depth chart as the Hoos prepare for William & Mary in the season opener on Saturday at 6 p.m. The true freshmen listed on the depth chart include Dominique Terrell (WR/PR), Darius Jennings (WR/PR/KR), Kelby Johnson (LT), David Watford (QB), Clifton Richardson (RB), Daquan Romero (LB), Demetrious Nicholson (DB), and Anthony Harris (S). The redshirt freshman include Cody Wallace (C), Conner Davis (RG), Jake McGee (TE), Kevin Parks (RB/KR), Khalek Shepherd (RB), Henry Coley (LB), Drequan Hoskey (DB), and Matt Fortin (LS).

“I think now there are 10 or 12 true freshmen that will play,” London said. “I think that it’s an indication of some of the young guys who came in here with the talent that they had exhibited on the field, that there were skills, whether it was speed or athleticism or strength. Particularly, most of them that are going to play are skill position guys. One of the things we tried to do was address speed, address skill, the needs there. … It’s in their development, they’ve gone through early camp, and we just say, ‘Listen, the guys came here to play, we’re going to put him in a position to play and to try to help us win. We’ll see. Like I said, the first college game is coming up here pretty soon.”

Several of those players have created buzz throughout preseason practice, most notably Nicholson, who is the only freshman listed as a starter on offense or defense. London even noted that it’s “no secret” that Nicholson will be starting as true freshman and he expects opponents to include that in their game plans for the passing game.

Some of Virginia’s seniors think that Nicholson will be up to the challenge.

Demetrious Nicholson is the only freshman listed as a starter on offense or defense.

“He’s a talented young player. He’s got great ball skills. When the ball is in the air, he spaces up very quickly. He’s good in and out of his breaks. I think he’s going to have a very successful career here at UVa,” said Virginia senior receiver Kris Burd , who often matches up with Nicholson in practice. “I mean, me personally, I would say so [that it may be a mistake for opponents to attack him]. Since none of the young guys have any games under their belts, I’m just going off of practice. I expect him to go out there Saturday and do what he’s been doing all of camp and he’ll be fine.”

“One thing that really stuck out to me, he’s a humble guy and I feel like he’s very mature. He acts older than his age. I feel like he’s embraced the role very well,” said senior safety Rodney McLeod , who played as a true freshman himself in the secondary. “Corner is not an easy job on the field at all, especially where he’s playing, so I feel like he’s done a great job in camp. That’s definitely a credit to Chase [Minnifield] helping him out this summer and some of us as well. I feel like he’s going to do a great job for us.”

Of course, the biggest nugget from the season’s first weekly presser addressed the quarterback situation. For the final two weeks or so of fall training camp, London did not name a starter at the position but mentioned that sophomore Michael Rocco and Watford would begin to receive more practice repetitions. He didn’t clarify how long that arrangement would last. He repeatedly remarked that it would be an evaluation period of increased reps for Watford to see if he would redshirt.

Watford won’t.

London wasted little time with that news Monday. Watford holds an “or” line with sophomore Ross Metheny as the back-up quarterback to Rocco.

“I think one of the things you see is obviously the guy who is going to take the first snap of the season as quarterback is Michael Rocco. No surprise. Taking the extra snaps during practices kind of arranged it that way. Also you’ll see David Watford play in the game,” London said. “I think one of the things we’re trying to do is find athleticism. We’re trying to find the playmakers and trying to find guys that can help us win. As I said going into this, David has a set of skills that are still developing but at the same time it’s something that this team can utilize. … Does he still have to learn? Yes, he does. But that’s part of the process. Part of the process of him learning will be as the season goes on. But I’m committed to playing him and trying to give him that development and that playmaker ability that I think this team needs.”

One of the most frequently discussed things among fans this offseason, the plan to use Watford in game situations wraps up an approximate nine-month evaluation process. Watford enrolled at UVa in January as a true freshman and opened spring practice outside of the race for playing time. Rocco, Metheny, and Michael Strauss arguably all had clubhouse leads on Watford at quarterback when those sessions began and all three appeared more ready to take the reins from Marc Verica in the Spring Game too.

Still, London liked what he saw from the Hampton High product both on and off the field. He said that Watford did a “great job with his grades” and showed that “there was something about him from a mental standpoint, the learning curve part” off the field. On the field, London said that Watford “showed an ability” too and that “he’s got an arm, he can run, and he’s athletic.” The freshman quarterback put on 11 pounds during offseason workouts and when the team hit the field for fall practice, Watford displayed a greater level of comfort at the position. As his reps increased, so did the likelihood that the 6’1″, 190-pound would play this season.

“The commitment to play David is because I see better things on the horizon for him, his development. So that’s where we are with him,” London said. “I don’t know about number of snaps, but we’re going to put him in the game and have, I guess you’d say, a limited menu for the type of plays he’s going to run. I want him to have success. I don’t want him to go in there and run everything, again, because of his level, where he is understanding the level. There will be a menu of things and plays that he can do that we’ll look for using his talents.”

Coach Mike London’s Weekly Press Conference Transcript

Can you tell us about the depth chart, mainly the quarterback situation?

“After an extensive amount of time looking at the team and trying to put players in the best position to help us win, we went through this and decided. As you look at the depth chart today, going into our first game, this is the way it looks.

The depth chart changes all the time. It changes with injury – it changes with guys whose learning curve has improved. It’s always in constant flux.
I think now there are 10 or 12 true freshmen that will play. Henry Coley , Drequan Hoskey, Kevin Parks , Khalek Shepherd , Jake McGee , Conner Davis will see their first college game because they’re in the depth or they’re on four-phase special teams.

I think one of the things you see is obviously the guy who is going to take the first snap of the season as quarterback is Michael Rocco. No surprise. Taking the extra snaps during practices kind of arranged it that way. Also you’ll see David Watford play in the game.

I think one of the things we’re trying to do is find athleticism. We’re trying to find the playmakers and trying to find guys that can help us win. As I said going into this, David has a set of skills that are still developing but at the same time, it’s something this team can utilize.

That doesn’t put Ross Metheny out of the mix. He’s an older guy, probably the oldest guy we have in terms of playing quarterback depth chart-wise.
Everybody wants to know who the starting quarterback is, this and that. But to be clear, our team understands what’s going on. We go out and we practice every day. The quarterbacks go against whoever they’re going against. The quarterback is behind the center. I think our team has a lot of confidence in Michael Rocco, and I think they have a lot of confidence in Ross Metheny . In terms of the development of David, I think there’s a confidence level that they have when he does some things. He can do some things that are special. Does he still have to learn? Yes, he does. But that’s part of the process. The process of him learning will happen as the season goes on. But I’m committed to playing him and trying to give him that development and that playmaker ability that I think this team needs.
There are also some young receivers in the mix with Darius Jennings , Dominique Terrell . I think they are also in the mix in terms of returning kicks and punts. It’s another opportunity for guys, those guys particularly, who have a skill level, particularly the speed and elusiveness to go out and catch the ball and further the field aspects of the game.

I know they’re excited about playing. We’re excited to play them. Those are guys that I think will be talked about a lot as the season goes on. Also, there is Kevin Parks and the running back situation. Kevin has done some very, very good things during the course of camp – coming out of the backfield, kicking the ball, running the ball, having long runs, having tough, hard runs, things like that. So we’re excited about Kevin having an opportunity to play.
Looking at it, we have a redshirt freshman, Matt Fortin, who is hopefully going to take the mode of Danny Aiken when I recruited him. He was a snapper – that’s what he did for a long time. Hopefully he’s still in the NFL snapping. But Danny was special. I think Matt has a chance to be really, really good for the next four years.

As you kind of look at it, you see on the depth chart that there are some young players who are backing up. This is the class of the true freshmen that are playing. Also I didn’t mention Kameron Mack , Brandon Phelps , D.J. Hill . They’ll also figure heavily into the special teams and perhaps the rotation.

In terms of the skill level of some of these young guys, there’s the good and the bad. The good is they’re young, athletic and they want to play. The bad is they have to learn how to play as they go along. They’ve gotten it through practice, but now they’re going to have to get it in playing through college football games. Our situation is no different from other teams in the country.

That’s it as far as the depth chart situations.”

Rijo Walker is now playing safety. What made you see confidence in him at that position? Is that a long-term move?

“No. I think Rijo was one of those young players that played last year as a true freshman. He started out playing on two phases. First, he played on the special teams unit. As he started to play, started to develop, he moved into a four-phase, full-phase special teams guy. His football IQ was very high. He’s a corner that has good skills and ability, but he’s also a smart guy. You want your safeties back there to be able to call defenses, get you lined up.

I think his development playing last season, knowing the defense, put him in the position now where he can also play safety. You always like those corners that can play safety. That’s why you recruit corners that play safety. His curve has fast-forwarded to the point he has a great understanding and grasp of the defense and how to run it. He shows an aptitude for getting it done.

We could have gone with Dom Joseph , who played safety last year. We still can do that in an emergency situation. But, as I said, I think Rijo has done a pretty good job in knowing the defense, the calls, the adjustments, all those things.”

Following up on Rijo Walker , when you’re in the nickel package, who is the fifth defensive back?

“It will be Dom [Joseph], [Demetrious Nicholson ], of course Rodney McLeod , and Corey Mosley back there. We’ve gotten Drequan Hoskey into the mix a little bit. Brandon Phelps is another one in the mix as a young player who’s going to play in the nickel and dime packages.

Again, it goes back to trying to take the skill level that the players have and utilize their skill level with the personnel group.

If we go for wide receivers in nickel and dime packages, you’ll see Brandon Phelps and Drequan Hoskey. It won’t be regular personnel, base personnel. We’ll have to be multiple with the types of guys that go in, both on offense and defense.

They wanted to play. We assessed them, evaluated whether they had the ability to do so. Now the biggest thing is playing in a college game in front of people yelling and screaming, bright lights, all those things. You never know how they’re going to react to that. My guess is they’re a confident group and they’re ready to play so we’re going to play them.”

Was there ever any discussion regarding who was going to be the No. 2 quarterback, or was there any point when Michael Rocco was not the front-runner?

“He was always a guy that was taking a lot of reps with the first group. Then David would take some reps with the first group. Also Ross would take reps, beat the clock in game situations in terms of his experience. As practice goes on, we start fine-tuning ‘the who’ and ‘the what.’ Obviously Michael will take most of the reps with all of the ones.

We’ve got to continue to try to develop David. There are some things he does well, there’s some things he has to learn. We wanted to make sure he had those opportunities to continue learning as a player. Ross was there with the first-unit group, he’s taken some of those reps. He has a presence as far as the balance of the offense. He has the experience there that you want around, that you have to have around.

We’ve got different quarterbacks. We have different guys that have different gifts, abilities and talents. Instead of anointing one as the sole guy, at this time in this program we are where we are right now with the quarterback situation. Hopefully their play as the season goes on will separate one from another because then they’re playing in front of people.

They’ve never been hit in practice. As much as you try to simulate live rushes and tackling the quarterback, that hasn’t happened. But it’s going to happen real quick. It’s going to happen this Saturday.

Who can handle it, how they handle has got to be evaluated as far as who will continue to keep taking snaps from center.”

Is it fair to say there’s not separation between the three?

“As I said, Michael Rocco is going to be the first quarterback to take a snap. I think that’s how we’re going to start the game. [David] Watford will get some reps. If the game dictates that Ross goes in, that’s how it happens.

There’s separation in the fact that we said the first guy taking the reps is Michael. Then after that, as we see how the game goes, I’m committed to putting David Watford in the game because he has another skill level. I don’t know if that answers your question or not. The separation is that the guy that’s going to take the snap is a guy that’s earned the ability to start the game.”

William & Mary beat Virginia in 2009. With that loss in mind, what is it like facing them this year?

“The last time they were up here, a lot of players playing for them now played and beat Virginia and helped them with turnovers. They wanted it more. They played harder. They came in with the mentality that, ‘We can win this game.’ As a BCS opponent, sometimes you get into that lull that you’re supposed to win this game.

I’ve been on both sides of that. If you don’t play to your capabilities, you’re in for a long day. I’ve been on that staff; I’ve coached with Coach Laycock. I know there’s a lot of confidence down there. Jonathan Grimes is an excellent player, the quarterback is an excellent player. So is the wide receiver they have. Their tight end, Gottleib, is an All-CAA pick. They’ve got great players. On the other side, defensively, the one corner, B.W. Webb, is excellent. The linebacker they’ve got, Dante Cook, a really great player. So is Marcus Hyde, the defensive end. There’s a team full of veteran players. Jonathan Grimes was an All-CAA special teams player and a starting tailback also.

They’re a very good team. I’ve seen them up close and personal. I’ve been on the staff. I know what’s being taught down there. I know the mindset that those guys are going to have coming in. I know it’s the first game, however you want to say. We have to play better, way better, than them if we’re going to have the kind of success we’re looking for.”

Michael Rocco tosses a touchdown pass against VMI last season.

What can you tell us about Michael Rocco? What do you like about him?

“You haven’t seen a whole bunch of him. He’s a true sophomore. He didn’t play many games last year. We’re trying to get some depth. Again, I’ve said that Michael comes from a family of coaches. He was a quarterback in high school, taught by his father. Frank Rocco does a great job up there at that school. There’s a calmness about Michael, and there’s an understanding about the style of offense that we have, about how to distribute the ball to the different playmakers. He’s a pocket guy that can make some of the reads.

Over the course of camp, he kept demonstrating his ability to do that. As I said before, we try to simulate live rushes and things like that. But whether it’s Michael or David or Ross, the test will come when they’re coming after you and you have to do something. You have to make snap judgment decisions, make those throws, or maybe use your feet to get you out of trouble.

We’ll see what happens with those guys as the season goes on. We’re looking at this as, ‘this is the first game.’ Michael Strauss is also a good prospect that’s going to be a really good young quarterback. But still, for Rocco and Watford, their development as the season goes on will be crucial and will be key because there is no other place to go. You have to develop the guys that you have, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

At the time you took the job, if I’m not mistaken, Michael Rocco was committed to another school. What went into the acquisition of him?

“As I recollect, we were trying to go after guys particularly him in his situation. He committed to Louisville. We got a call from his family stating that he was interested in reopening his process because I believe there was a coach change there. I believe Coach Strong was coming in there. I think the familiarity the family had with the coaches here on staff and myself was one of the issues. Also, the chance to play close to home was a huge issue. Once he met Coach Lazor and the style of offense we were going to run, that was another issue that brought him here.

I think that with the accumulated points and in his best interest, he chose Virginia. We had spots open. We had scholarships available at that time. So that’s how that came about.”

What are your thoughts on David Watford ? Did you always think he could play as a true freshman?

“He was a midyear player. He did a great job with his grades in the midyear when the semester was over. I knew that he would. But the fact that he did well was something that I knew spoke to him as a quarterback. His first semester, he did an extremely good job in terms of handling the academic course load going into spring practice. There was something about him from the mental standpoint, the learning curve part. Then we started practicing. He wasn’t in the mix at that point. The few reps that he did get, he showed ability. He’s got an arm, he can run, and he’s athletic.

Spring practice ended. We were dealing with Michael and Ross from that standpoint. With David, it wasn’t as much as a ‘we got to get this kid in the game.’ It was, ‘look at his development, he’s pretty good.’ During the summer, he started working out as the guys are doing their own seven-on-seven. He gained 11 pounds, got stronger, got half an inch taller – I don’t know if it was the Afro, but there was something that got him bigger. That was the early part of camp.

So his development started, his process started. When you already have two guys that have played a lot, you want to make sure you do right by them and give them opportunities. When you have another guy like Michael Strauss in the mix, it’s hard to find reps to get him in there and speed up his development.

We go back to three weeks ago, whenever we started about it, and this is what we decided to do. I decided to make sure that he got reps but also, at that time, Michael Rocco got a chance to have reps. When you go back, the players that have gotten the most reps, the most looks, the most throws, have been Ross Metheny , Michael Strauss , Michael Rocco, and David Watford in an attempt to try to bring them up to a level being able to evaluate them and to make a decision to do what we did a few weeks back.

As I said, the commitment to play David is because I see better things on the horizon for him, his development. That’s where we are with him.”

Kris Burd is a senior among a group of younger receivers and quarterbacks. What do you need from him?

“Just getting the ball to him. With our passing game, we throw spots. It’s an offense that’s based on coverages and things like that. Looking at the older guys, Tim Smith is back, healthy now. It’s been really nice to see him out there running around. Matt Snyder, our captain, is there. So are young guys like Miles Gooch , who is trying to find a way to play.

I think the better our receivers are in running their routes, the better it’s going to make it for those young quarterbacks to throw where they’re supposed to throw. I think we have a handful of veteran receivers that can do that.”

You’ve gotten a lot of questions this summer about Cam Johnson. What kind of season do you expect from Jake Snyder ?

“Hopefully a very good one because he hasn’t been playing a lot. Jake is a tough, hard-nosed blue-collar type of guy. Not flashy. He just works hard every practice. He’s very physical, one of the strongest guys on our team. He’s a smart player and an effort player. We’re hoping that he can give us some snaps that can add up to tackles, tackles for loss, and even some sacks because he’s exhibited those type of capabilities in practice. Again, here we are, game week, and we’ll see if he can do it in the game.”

With all the youth on the team, was there any reluctance to have so many guys jump right into the fray?

“Well, I think it’s an indication of the talent of some of the young guys who came in here. They had, whether it was speed or athleticism or strength. Most of them that are going to play are skill-position guys. One of the things we tried to do was address speed, address skill, the needs there.

I love all my players. There are third years and fourth years that have been in the program for a while. It’s no disrespect to them. It’s just the reality of college football that you’re supposed to play the best players, try to develop those players as you go along.

Whether it’s a fourth year or a first year, I know there are some things that are good and bad about the young players that are playing. Like I said, we’re no different than a lot of other college teams that are going to be playing freshmen for the first time.

It’s in their development. They’ve gone through early camp. We just say, ‘listen, the guy came to here to play, we’re going to put him in a position to try to help us play and win.’ We’ll see. Like I said, the first college game is coming up here pretty soon.”

Chase Minnifield returned punts and Perry Jones returned kicks in the past, but they are not on the depth chart. Can you please discuss that decision?

“They are always an option because of the experience they’ve had doing it. Again, it refers back to the ability of Dominique Terrell being a punt catcher. I think he’s a dynamic punt catcher. Kickoff return guys, Darius Jennings and Kevin Parks , are pretty good at that also.

Perry is going to carry the ball. If you have a way to take some hits off of him and to avoid guys running full speed trying to tackle him, we’re going to do that. In practice, he’s catching kickoffs, punts. It’s the same thing with Chase [Minnifield]. Every time we punt, he’s out there catching punts. We’ll see what happens with Dominique. Everybody will hold their breath on that first punt – ‘please catch it, please catch it.’ If he catches it and he runs with it and does a good job, it’s a great move. If he doesn’t, then everybody’s upset.

Again, we’re going to utilize his talents and we’ll go from there. If things happen where we have to make changes, we can always go back to those guys. But starting out, I’m going to give these young players an opportunity.”

What does it mean to have linebacker depth with Ausar Walcott , a guy who started 11 games last year?

“The other thing is that Ausar [Walcott] has done a nice job. We’ve all talked about him before in telephone conference calls of getting himself back in position to be a relevant player. I think he’s now doing that. He was over there watching film. He’ll be in third-down packages coming off with his hand in the ground. He can play both linebacker positions because of his knowledge playing that position last year.

I’m pleased where Ausar is right now. At first I wasn’t talking about him much. But I think that he’s come a long way. Now it’s an opportunity for him to shine both on the field and in the classroom and in the community.”

How many snaps do you expect for David Watford on Saturday?

“I don’t know about number of snaps, but we’re going to put him in the game and have what I guess you’d say is a limited menu in the type of plays he’s going to run. I want him to have success. I don’t want him to go in there and run everything because of his level and where he is in understanding the level. There will be a menu of things and plays that he can do and that we’ll look for using his talents in.”

A lot of emphasis in the spring was placed on defense and attempting to correct last year’s flaws. What excites you most about the defense heading into the season and what are you anxious to see?

“I’m fired up for the fact that the unit is a year older, and that the unit is stronger and more experienced. I’m fired up about that fact. Usually it should translate into playing better. It’s no secret that you look on the depth chart and you see that there’s a true freshman corner. I’m quite sure that the football will be thrown that way. I also feel good about it, and the staff feels good about the way this young man, Tra’, carries himself. His approach to studying the game – he is a smart player. In summer school, he had a 3.5 GPA. He’s going to be a future captain of this team. He’s very mature. He’s a fast player. You know, he’s got a skill level to play. That’s why we put him there.

There’s always anxiousness about anybody that plays. But I’m quite sure that there will be no hiding the corner when he’s in press coverage or man coverage. Everybody will see.”

What are your thoughts on William & Mary after scouting the team?

“Defensively they’re a zone pressure team. You go back and you look at the game against Virginia a couple years ago – that was a different style of offense with the big splits and all that. If you go back and look at their game against North Carolina, they’re a front that moves. They’re very active. They’ll zone pressure you, three-deep. They keep the ball in front of them. They don’t let you throw the ball behind them. They got guys that run. They play hard. That’s a style of defense that I know Coach Shoop was running before he left and went to Vanderbilt, and Coach Boone who I know also has picked up the same philosophy, same style of play.

I think offensively we expect a lot of shifts and motions. Again, Coach Laycock is one of the best offensive minds I know with formations and shifts. Little subtle movements and motions to see whether you’re playing man or whether you’re playing zone. Quarterbacks do a great job of leading the coverage, pre-snap, then post-snap. They have skilled wide receivers. Although I believe they’re missing No. 9, one of their best wide receivers. I don’t believe he’s in the mix right now. But their receiver group is a group that’s reflective of Coach Laycock’s offensive philosophy about, ‘Hey, read this coverage. You sit down, you’re out right here. You convert your route into this type of route.’

They’re an experienced team. They have a veteran quarterback with Paulus. He was recruited and went to North Carolina. I’m pretty sure they feel good about his skill level and his ability.

Then with their kicking game, Jonathan Grimes was the player of the year on special teams. They do a great job on all three facets of the football.

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