UVa QB Michael Rocco threw for a career-high 287 yards at North Carolina.
Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco put together a solid performance Saturday at North Carolina. In some ways, it even can be considered a breakout performance as the sophomore passed for a career-high 287 yards and his first touchdown of the season plus rushed for another score. In others, it highlights that there’s still a long way to go for the young signal caller after he threw two late interceptions and had a miscue with center Anthony Mihota that led to a lost fumble.
The team notices Rocco’s development as the season grows older for the Cavaliers (2-1).
“I see him progressing every game. Just being in the huddle with him, you can see the confidence and the look in his eyes when it comes down to those gut-check moments,” senior receiver Kris Burd said. “I feel like he’s definitely grown as a quarterback. I told him on the field after he had that touchdown against North Carolina, that’s the type of play we need him to make, when things break down just kind of make a play. I feel like he’s definitely growing and he’s only going to get better.”
As Rocco progresses, the Cavaliers are looking to open things up more offensively. That topic captured much of the attention at Monday’s weekly press meeting as the Hoos prepare for Southern Miss on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
The goal? More big plays and hopefully more points. That’s because Virginia piled up 468 yards of offense in Saturday’s 28-17 loss, but had little to show for it on the scoreboard. Ultimately, the Cavaliers can move the ball up and down the field, but they cash in with field goals too often in the red zone vs. touchdowns and they don’t have explosive scoring plays otherwise. The result is an offense that can move the ball up put up yards, but still needs a jolt of scoring prowess.
The explosive scoring plays problem dates back to 2010 when UVa finished last in the ACC for scoring plays of 25 yards or more. Through three games, the Cavs haven’t broken through often for a long touchdown in 2011 either. The Hoos have just one passing touchdown on the season, Saturday’s 41-yarder to Max Milien when he caught the ball in the flats and raced up the sidelines untouched. The only other scoring play of more than 25 yards was a 26-yard run by running back Kevin Parks in the season opener.
Virginia wants to get more deeper passes in the game plan for Kris Burd and his fellow receivers.
“I think that Mike has demonstrated the ability to distribute the ball as we’ve asked. There were two interceptions in the [UNC] game, one was off the hands of a receiver. … Whether we have to have an extra blocker or whatever it takes to make sure that we stretch the field vertically, I think that’s important,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “The throw that [Michael Rocco] threw to Tim Smith [for 32 yards late] was right on the money, and we need to do that more often. We need to take more shots and stretch the field. I think that because of the protection the offensive line has been giving us, opportunities will open up to do that, and I think he’s ready for it. His knowledge of the offense has continued to expand and grow, and there is a level of increased confidence that Coach Lazor and the offensive guys and the offensive players have for Michael, and for David for that matter. We’re anxious to get to practice tomorrow and start doing some things that, at this stage now, we need to start doing to open up the game a little bit more.”
In order to provide more punch from the passing game, UVa will look to keep Burd going on Saturday’s path (he had 7 catches for 110 yards) while getting the likes of Tim Smith , Darius Jennings , and Dominique Terrell more involved. The latter three players bring a blend of speed and shiftiness to the table that could boost the chances of explosive scoring plays. For Jennings and Terrell, that means becoming more integrated as primary options on passing plays vs. just being secondary looks. It also means trying to put them in positions beyond quick-throw screens in the flats.
“I think that where they are now, their knowledge of the offense has increased to where they can go in. Even in this game they went in [and] they were in regular rotation. I think now, as far as being primary receivers instead of the second or third choice, by their skill level, understanding of the offense … because sometimes they go in and you want to make sure they’re aligned properly, make sure they’re not covering up the tight end. That happened one time to Darius Jennings . He covered up the tight end, we had a long play and it got called back,” London said. “Both Dominique and Darius are doing well in school. They’re smart players, and I think they’ll pick that up. You’ll see more of them in the rotation and they’ll have opportunities, like I said, to catch the ball downfield, intermediate routes, bubble screens, reverses – just all those things.”
In Smith’s case, the challenge is to target him more often. His only catch Saturday at UNC came in the final 3 minutes when he hauled in a well-thrown pass for 32 yards. In fact, that’s the sophomore receiver’s only catch in the last two games after he hauled in 7 catches for 72 yards against William & Mary in the opener. As one of the most noticeable receivers in the early stages of fall camp, it’s surprising to that more balls haven’t gone his way in recent weeks after that debut.
Opponents are trying to bottle him up, but if the Hoos want to put up more big plays and more points, they’ve got to find ways to get the playmakers like Smith more chances. Smith, after all, owns two of the three longest catches on the season at 40 and 32 yards.
“I think part of that is the rotation of receivers that have been going in and out – Kris Burd , you’ve got the two young guys, [Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell ], and also you have Matt Snyder. But you’re right, there need to be more conscious effort from us to get the ball to Tim,” London said. “Tim showed that he can run downfield vertically. We have to improve in the aspect of getting the ball to our playmakers, and he’s one of them, so Tim will be actively involved in our vertical passing game.”
Coach Mike London’s Weekly Press Conference Transcript
After the game, you mentioned that the team had dominated the first-half statistics, yet the scoreboard failed to reflect the stat sheet. How frustrating was that?
“You always want to know that what you’re doing – the game plan that you’re trying to execute to have opportunities to make a difference. Other than the quarterback being their leading rusher because of the scrambles, I thought we were doing that – we were running the ball and throwing the ball. But we did not capitalize on points when we had those opportunities to get points. And missing the field goal early, that kind of started a little bit of the effect there.
But as I said, going into half, you look at the statistics. The statistics, they mean a lot. But at the same time, the scoreboard is a telltale indicator of how things are going, and they were up on top. When you’re away and on the road and dealing with all the things you have to deal with, you have to be able to execute and put points on the board. That will be a point of emphasis for us as we approach this game, to put points on the board and limit the points they get.”
Regarding the expansion of the ACC, what was your reaction? How does that change things?
“Honestly, I found out when everyone else found out about the new members. In my career here at Virginia, I’ve had the opportunity to play both of those teams. The powers-that-be talk about the expansion of the conference and what it means to the conference – the academics that both schools have, their geography, the student-athletes and the students in general who come to school that makes it a fit – and so in the day of college football now, where these super conferences are starting to merge and form, all parties from the ACC agreed that these two schools are two good partners to join the ACC.”
Now three games into the season, can you evaluate the true freshmen?
“In this past game we played all the freshmen that had eligibility to play – including the redshirt freshmen – and there’s still some learning going on. Kameron Mack did a great job on special teams. We got one of those blocks in the back that ended in a big hit on Darius Jennings . But he’s going to be a good player. The understanding of the techniques and things like that that are needed – a lot of these young players are trying to learn that. As I said before, what you can’t practice, you can’t practice – the speed of the other team, you can’t practice the atmosphere, you can’t practice some of those things that you only learn and get when you’re in a game and you’re playing.
There is a little bit of a comfort level these guys have now after having been in games, and we look forward to them continuing to improve. Clifton Richardson – I’ve always said I think he’s going to be really, really good, and he’s going to play more. David Watford had a couple series in there. He’s going to play more. We’ve got to do a better job of making sure that a guy like Dominique Terrell , who catches punts, has a chance to catch the punts to show what he can do. Same thing with Darius Jennings . There are a couple guys whose talents we want to be able to use and who we want to bring along, and that’s why they’re playing. That’s the plan – to continue to develop with these guys.”
Last night talked about the offensive line playing well and also wanting to make the running game a little more vertical. Will that put a heavier load on Mike Rocco ‘s shoulders? Where do you feel he is at now at this point in the season, and is he ready for that responsibility?
“I think so. I think that Mike has demonstrated the ability to distribute the ball as we’ve asked. There were two interceptions in the game, one was off the hands of a receiver. But the way the offensive line has had a chance not only to through the running game but also to provide more pass protection. Whether we have to have an extra blocker or whatever it takes to make sure that we stretch the field vertically, I think that’s important. The throw that [Michael Rocco] threw to Tim Smith was right on the money, and we need to do that more often. We need to take more shots and stretch the field. I think that because of the protection the offensive line has been giving us, opportunities will open up to do that, and I think he’s ready for it. His knowledge of the offense has continued to expand and grow, and there is a level of increased confidence that Coach Lazor and the offensive guys and the offensive players have for Michael, and for David for that matter. We’re anxious to get to practice tomorrow and start doing some things that, at this stage now, we need to start doing to open up the game a little bit more.”
In 2009, Southern Miss had a number of big plays, including in the return game. How does Southern Miss compare to the BCS teams you play?
“They’re a BCS team, too. The young man – Lampley, No. 1 – is a dynamic return guy. Punts, kickoffs – he has career touchdowns in both categories there. This is a team that’s very, very fast, again, very athletic. Most of the teams they play in Conference-USA, I believe, are spread offense teams – hurry up, quick tempo – so their offensive and their defensive looks are geared towards stopping those types of looks.
I think their quarterback, Austin Davis, just broke Brett Favre’s passing yardage record, his touchdown record, in his last game. He’s a senior who does a great job at running Coach Fedora’s offense and the receivers that he has. I think he threw a 90 yard touchdown pass against Marshall. They’ve been throwing the ball around there a lot, and this quarterback has the pelts to prove it.
I think defensively, because they’ve played so many spread teams in their own conference, there’s a 3 4 look to it – three linemen and four guys off the ball that can walk one up. Then they have four guys in the secondary, and they’ll play a true 4 3 look. They’re very multiple, again probably because of the offenses they’ve had to defend in their own league.
But they run to the ball well. I was talking to Perry Jones the other day – I think he traveled on the trip down there – and he said they just kept coming in waves. Their athleticism, their speed eventually took over. I don’t think we’ll be hot on Saturday, but it’ll be an important game for us as we start to go down this stretch here of home games. It’s important for us to play well and do well to try to fulfill some of the goals the guys have set for themselves.”
Can you speak of the general aspects you were looking for in this year’s recruiting class?
“Just generally, speed. To address the speed issues, you have to recruit speed and you have to address athleticism. Defensively, we were looking for pass rushers and guys that can put pressure on the quarterback. That’s about all I can say about that, and hopefully it reflects the mindset of what we’re looking for.”
You talked about Southern Miss offense and defense. What about special teams? What do they have there?
“As I was saying, their receiver, Tracey Lampley, is also a guy that is involved in their return game and punts and kickoff returns. He does an excellent job, and he’s a downhill guy. When he gets the ball, he’s fearless and he’ll get after it. Their punter punts the ball well; the placekicker does a great job, as well. I think because they’re fast, their cover units do a great job – their kickoff coverage, their punt team when they have to turn and cover downfield. We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’re trying to get our playmakers the ball. Their hit and cover units are pretty good. Special teams-wise, the battle will be get our returner the ball and then get him downfield fast enough to make sure we don’t give No. 1 a chance to break loose.”
Is your recruiting focus still in state?
“Yeah, I think our philosophy is obviously the in state area. Wherever it is, we want to do a good job in-state and then in the states that touch us. There’s North Carolina, Maryland and D.C., those areas. Then secondary areas are places that traditionally this school has student-athletes and students in general that come to school here because someone in that school knows about Virginia. There’s a large number of student-athletes from the New Jersey, the New York area, the Pennsylvania area, and with the two new members now, we’ll pay closer attention to some of those areas – those schools that have a similar profile to that of Virginia. We’ll stay true to what we’ve been doing as far as our primary areas, but we’ll certainly take a look at some of the secondary areas in Pennsylvania, New York, Long Island, those areas, because obviously whenever they start playing, there will be opportunities there. The recruiting pitch will be that you’ll have a chance to go back home and play in front of your fans and your family.”
I know you take care of one game at a time, but just talk about the next five weeks. How can four straight home games help a team gather some momentum? Can that help Michael Rocco in terms of comfort level?
“After being on the road twice, you’re always worried as a coach about creating that routine for the players, and I think the routine that we have for home games is something that the players have gotten used to and now have a chance to get acclimated to for the next three, four weeks. It’s important because they’re sleeping in a familiar place and know what we do, how we do it. This game is at 3:30 so it’ll mimic what we did last week, but we were traveling then. And I think that the comfort level of being at home – when people show up at Scott Stadium, it’s awesome. That was a great crowd for the first home game against William & Mary, so we’re hoping and anticipating another crowd like that because obviously guys want to play well in front of the home fans. Whether Coach Lazor calls a game that builds confidence with Michael Rocco’s ability to have efficiency when he throws the ball and throw completions – you build upon that type of confidence. Where he is now as a football player, we want to continue to expand on all those levels.
It is one game at a time, but by human nature, you look at what’s behind the next one. Truly this is the first opportunity to again be at home, and then knowing that you’ll be here for a while, to really go out and play hard, to give yourself a chance to win some games.”
Back to expansion, do you think it’s inevitable that the it will go to four 16 team super conferences? If so, do you think such a structure will be good for college football or bad?
“That’s a great question – whether it’s inevitable. What’s inevitable is that if you’re not one of the teams that are involved in the, quote unquote, mega conferences that you want to get yourself aligned quickly. I don’t have the answer as to what happens to a school that doesn’t have an opportunity to do that and what the landscape of college football will look like. Whether it’s fair or not, again, I can’t speak to that. I just know that in this day and time, schools are trying to align themselves not only with the fit academically but geographically and philosophy wise. There are all kinds of things that are being talked about, by the college presidents and athletic directors and the people that make those decisions.
“I know that this whole thing is not over. Everyone will be looking to the TV and looking to see who’s going to do what because there will be domino effects of what schools do and what they don’t do. And truly, I’ll be like you; I’ll be learning like everybody else what happens. Hopefully the game of college football remains one of the best sports that young men can participate in. We’ll see how that goes.”
“I think that where they are now, their knowledge of the offense has increased to where they can go in. Even in this game they went in [and] they were in regular rotation. I think now, as far as being primary receivers instead of the second or third choice, by their skill level, understanding of the offense … because sometimes they go in and you want to make sure they’re aligned properly, make sure they’re not covering up the tight end. That happened one time to Darius Jennings . He covered up the tight end, we had a long play and it got called back. You look to the sideline, look to the referee, the side judge, and he gives you an indication whether you’re on or off, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with them. Those are the things on a Sunday where you come back and just say, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get this corrected.’ Both Dominique and Darius are doing well in school. They’re smart players, and I think they’ll pick that up. You’ll see more of them in the rotation and they’ll have opportunities, like I said, to catch the ball downfield – intermediate routes, bubble screens, reverses, just all those things.”
What makes Will Hill so disruptive, and do you essentially consider him a starter whether he’s in the first group or not?
“I think Will is. He’s got a great, great work ethic and a tremendous motor. Although there’s Nick Jenkins and there’s Matt Conrath , I look at it as kind of a three way rotation in there as far as starters. Will has worked himself into a position where he goes in the game and he goes in the game early, whether he’s on a nickel unit, a pass-rush unit, or whatever it may be. Will, again, has done a great job of just getting himself ready physically and mentally to be an inside tackle for college football, and he’ll continue to. His role will continue to increase and hopefully his play making abilities as the season goes on will increase, as well.”
After the game, you mentioned wanting to take a look at how the players were doing on blocking some running lanes for the quarterback. What did you find after looking at the film?
“I think one of the things is we talk about rush lanes and then rush landmark. The landmark is always the quarterback, his front side number and his back-side number. The rush lanes are allowed to move sometimes. Blockers will come down and block you and kind of seal you. We’ve just got to do a better job of making a combination move back – whether it’s a spin move, an across the face move – to get back to the rush landmark of the quarterback, even though the lane might have moved. There are techniques that you use to get back to the landmark, and those guys understand that. When they look at the film, they’re like, ‘I should have made an inside move here.’ The veteran players to the inside – I think that’ll get corrected. That’s just a matter of awareness, and we’ll work hard on making sure they’re very aware of the rush lanes and landmarks, particularly for this game, as well.
The quarterback does a great job of distributing the ball, but once in a while he’ll pull it down, he’ll run. But this is one of the games where we want to try to get people used in the deflected passes by being in the right spot in front of the quarterback to deflect passes. We’re going to work on all those aspects and make sure we cover the bases and not allow a situation where a quarterback runs for more yardage than the running backs have by the first half.”
Being a veteran defensive guy like you are, how challenging is it to play good defense these days under the current circumstances?
“I’ll tell you, offenses have done a great job of stretching the field not only vertically but horizontally – when they stretch the field from sideline to sideline and make you cover that. They also have the ability to stretch the field vertically with play action passes – make it look like a run, and then, last minute, come off the line of scrimmage. One of the rules that has kind of changed that’s been utilized the most is offensive linemen being allowed to actually block downfield for about three yards. When you’re allowed to do that, on your play-action passes, you can make it look like you’re running a zone play. They’re three yards down the line of scrimmage, your linebackers are starting up or the safety that’s a run support guy starts up, and all of a sudden the quarterback brings the ball off the line of scrimmage and he throws the ball.
That’s a rule I know a lot of offensive line coaches are teaching their offensive players – you’ve got to make this run play, this pass play look like the complementary run play. I think a lot of offenses have done a great job of putting that into their philosophy of attacking you horizontally and vertically, and it’s tough. It’s tough because the linebackers are taught to read linebackers, get downhill, make aggressive plays – safeties come fill the gap. When we talk about high hat or low hat indicators from the linemen – when a lineman comes off the ball hat low, that’s a run read. But offenses have done a great job of play action pass offs and then throwing the ball behind you or along those intermediate routes.
It’s a task to try to coach the guys up and to be in the right position, and you try to find other indicators that can help you with those run pass read looks. But it is difficult to defend teams that are taking advantage of the rules that are allowing offensive linemen to cross the line of scrimmage and basically go downfield a ways.”
Tim Smith hasn’t been involved as much the last two weeks. Are teams covering him up more than they were the first two games of the season? How can you get him more involved?
“I think Tim had four catches – three, four catches – the first week. I think part of that is the rotation of receivers that have been going in and out – Kris Burd , you’ve got the two young guys, [Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell ], and also you have Matt Snyder. But you’re right, there needs to be more conscious efforts from us to get the ball to Tim. Tim showed that he can run downfield vertically. We have to improve in the aspect of getting the ball to our playmakers, and he’s one of them, so Tim will be actively involved in our vertical passing game.”
Do you expect any of the guys who were injured during the last game to be back in time for this week’s matchup?
“Today is a no practice day, and then at seven o’clock tonight we get the injury report, so I’ll know better then the prognosis of whether or not they’ll be available. I know [the report] is usually released on Thursdays, but this is not an ACC game, so I don’t know the aspect of making that public. I am hoping that after a couple weeks with Colter [Phillips], we have his services, and the same thing with Henry [Coley]. We’ll see. Sometimes those leg injuries or upper extremity injuries respond well, but when you’re in there physically and having to grab and tackle and block, you never want to put a player in jeopardy of reinjuring something. We’ll see how that goes.”
Is there something in particular you guys have to do defensively to stop Southern Miss?
“They’re pretty good offensively. As I was saying before, these spread offenses will try to exploit you horizontally with the bubble screens and the flare screens and throwing the ball to the perimeter. When you shore that up, then they’ll try to hit you vertically in the passing game. I think rush lanes will be important, so will the different types of coverages that we show them before the snap and after the snap, pressuring the quarterback, making sure we understand the concepts they use – whether it’s the high low concept or the in and out concepts. It’s kind of like an Indiana type of style. Because Kevin Wilson knows Larry Fedora, I’m quite sure there will be conversations between those two about what they thought about us offensively and defensively and how they attacked us. Our game plan will be to be coverage sound, be lane integrity sound, and know where their best players are, because the quarterback, as I said, has done a fantastic job running their offense.”
Obviously Kris Burd has turned things around, which is a little bit of a surprise considering he wasn’t with you at the start of preseason practice. Was that a focus issue with him, and what do you think about the way he’s performing?
“I just saw Kris walk in here a few seconds ago. You can ask Kris that question. I can tell you that Kris has done a phenomenal job now being a leader of our team and being a guy that works hard on the field, in the classroom. He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. In the early part of the year, there were some issues that he and I had to address, and we just left it at that. Now the fact that he’s back – he’s another guy we talk about stretching the field vertically who has skills to do that, and we want to make sure we take every advantage of that.”
Is there anything in general that you want your team to take away from the loss against North Carolina?
“The margin for error when you’re playing against a team like that or any team that’s very talented and capable of dominating games is so thin. Running the right route … we had a fumbled snap on the 40 yard line when we were driving which possibly could have led to points. On the other way, we threw an interception that possibly could have led to points as we were driving, and we missed a field goal.
The margin for error is so slim that you don’t have opportunities to fight your way back like we did with Indiana. I think the learning from that is that in close games against good teams – you have to be on the plus side of the ledger. You can’t be on the negative side of it because you’re not going to come out on top. Hopefully that’s one of the lessons that they’ve learned.”