Hoos Shift Strategy On QBs

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David Watford

After a rough outing Saturday when the offense generated just 249 yards against NC State, the already fiercely debated quarterback rotation conversation climbed another decibel. The Cavaliers have been substituting reserve David Watford for starter Michael Rocco at predetermined times in most games this season but when the quarterbacks combined for 125 yards on 11-of-35 passing against the Wolfpack, the approach drew additional criticism from outside observers.

The summarized version of the complaints centers on the offense’s overall rhythm – in other words, the timing of the substitution. The pre-planned use of Watford often has followed a good start offensively where the Cavaliers have scored points in the early stages of the game as Rocco settles into a comfort zone. Against Southern Miss, the sub followed two touchdowns on Rocco drives. Against Idaho, it again followed a pair of TDs. Against Georgia Tech, the Hoos waited after Rocco led two early touchdown drives; the substitution didn’t occur until the offense missed a field goal and Rocco had an interception. Against NCSU, Rocco led a TD drive that bridged the first and second quarter before the visitors responded to tie the game at 7-7. The sub plan put Watford in the game on the ensuing drive.

In each case, it appears to have been hard for Rocco to regain the rhythm that led the offense to touchdowns before the rotation occurred. On the season, Rocco is 109-182 for 1,186 yards. He has thrown 4 TDs and 8 INTs on the year; he also has rushed for 21 yards and 2 touchdowns. Watford, who has rushed for 44 yards, has completed 30 of 71 passes for 3 TDs with 4 INTs this season.

The Virginia coaching staff decided this weekend to change the substitution plan. Instead of a pre-planned substitution for one series, Watford will enter the game at opportune times to use him for certain plays. UVa coach Mike London addressed the new strategy with reporters on his Sunday night teleconference and again on Monday during his weekly meeting with the media. He did not elaborate on how the system to use Watford on certain plays would work because he didn’t want to provide tips for future opponents.

“That was another question that was posed [Sunday] night and the way I answered it was that Michael Rocco was the starting quarterback and he will be afforded the opportunity to go in the game and play and do what he needs to do. With David Watford we are not talking about series with him. We are talking about perhaps plays for him,” London said. “He’s done a nice job. … David will do fine. He’ll be in the game and he’ll play in the game. There probably won’t be the rotation part of it as you’ve been seeing, in order to give [David] a chance to watch, but it will give Michael an opportunity to get in the game and play the game.”

While some speculated Sunday that this move was due the short week of preparation (Virginia plays Miami on Thursday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN), it does not sound like this is temporary strategy shift for the Hoos. London, who also said he still believes it was the right decision not to redshirt Watford because this season’s experience will benefit him in the long run, said this is the plan for the remainder of the season.

“We are going to go down that route the next five games here, hopefully six games, and we’ll continue to keep developing [Watford] and feel much better about his development now with the opportunities that he’s had,” London said. “He’s been in games, has made big throws, made big runs. For his continued development, we want to make sure that we limit his role a little bit more and let him watch, let him absorb, let him learn, let him play, and let him play at the right opportunities.”

In addressing myriad questions about the switch, London circled back to the topic of confidence. He referenced the situation of former UVa quarterback Anthony Martinez, who got forced into action at South Carolina early in his career when Matt Schaub was injured. London talked about the burdens of playing as a true freshman quarterback and the weight of expectations.

In short, the Cavalier coach wants to make sure to bring Watford along the development curve without crushing the confidence needed to be a successful athlete on any level, much less as a Division I quarterback.

“When you talk about a young player and you talk about the psychology of dealing with a young guy, I continue to keep talking about the things that he can be, the things that he wants to be. I’m kind of the eternal optimist the way I look at things and try to be fair to him. For a young man to think that he lost the game and shoulder an entire perhaps game or turn of a season, I’m not going to allow him to have that type of a decision,” London said. “I want be you to be a student-athlete. I want to you not to feel like you have to win everything and to relish the role that we are going to give you. Hopefully, with a few wins, maybe there’s an extra opportunity that affords to you get better as a quarterback. With spring practice, another opportunity is going to be afforded you to get better as a quarterback. … I think that you guys had a chance to talk to guys after practice. I don’t know if you talked to David or not, but I think he’s at peace with that to be honest with you. He knows he’s still going to play, and there’s some things that we like to do to utilize his talents and his abilities. I’m responsible for these guys in a lot of ways. In a football way, you want it to happen. If it doesn’t manifest itself on the field, it provides a level frustration not only for him but people that are watching. You know that he’s going to be good. Then you make the decision, ‘What’s in the best interests of him?’ The team right now is moving in the direction that we are moving.”

Michael Rocco

The change, of course, impacts Rocco as the starter as well. Will he be able to get off to the fast starts of some previous weeks? Will he be able to maintain that momentum without the rotation? Those questions will play out as the games progress. London indicated that he sees continued improvement in Rocco’s development as a starting quarterback. After throwing 7 interceptions in the first four games, the true sophomore has tossed just 1 INT over the past three outings. Rocco has thrown for 3 TDs in those games after having just 1 TD pass in the first four contests.

“Michael played last year, and Michael started out as our starter. I think what [the rotation] allowed for him to do, even as a true sophomore quarterback, was to watch the game, observe the game, and watch the rotation of the safeties and watch the different aspects of it. I think in terms of his development, him watching, those things have been a benefit for him,” London said. “His learning curve has continued to increase and improve. Now where we are in the situation with David is, ‘Listen, we are not going to put the added parts on your plate. We’ll take some off your plate.’ Now with Michael, ‘You’ve been through this system. You’ve watched Marc Verica play. You’ve been through the same system, you’ve had the opportunities and started every game. We can add more on your plate.'”

The first chance to see how it all plays out comes on Thursday. The Cavaliers and Hurricanes both enter the game with 4-3 records on the season. The history of the matchup is split 5-3 in Miami’s favor. With the exception of Virginia’s 48-0 blowout in the final game at the Orange Bowl and Miami’s 52-17 romp in 2009, the other six games in the series have been decided by 10 points or less.

The Hoos, of course, are trying to exorcise some recent demons too. They won just three ACC games in 2009 and 2010 so they would like to pick up the second conference victory of the season this week to help move the program’s rebuilding effort forward. Needing two more wins to secure bowl eligibility, a road victory on national TV could help that cause as well.

Ultimately, that’s where London’s focus is now (“Now this is an opportunity for us to move forward, [to] rally behind one cause, and the cause is to try to win as many games as we can coming down the stretch,” he said.) that the quarterback discussion has dominated the headlines and message boards.

“I’ve talked to all of the quarterbacks and all of them have role and they will continue to have a role, but I’m worried about David Watford as an individual. Some people want him out there, just throw him out there and let him play. We have gotten to this point and evaluated where we are with him and his development,” London said. “He’ll have opportunities, but not as the opportunities have been presented thus far. He’s embraced his role. He understands, the team understands. Everyone is on the same page of how we try to develop another quarterback and how we try to get guys in the game so they can all add up to helping us. … David in particular is going to continue to play, but for his development, he needs to take a step back here and watch a little bit because I think that in the long run, it will be best for him and best for the team.

“We had to get to this point. We had to get to a point in the season where you try and develop who your quarterbacks are and your depth situation,” London continued. “When you coach, you have to make tough decisions. You make them and you live with them and then you move forward. That’s the decision. It’s been made and we are moving forward; now we are concentrating on how to play a very good Miami team.”

Coach Mike London’s Weekly Press Conference Transcript

There was a time when Virginia tended to play one Thursday night game each season. The matchup against Miami will be the team’s first Thursday game in a while. What does this mean as a recruiting tool and as a chance to showcase the program?

“Provided that you play well and you’re competitive, it gives you an opportunity to get your name out there and to get your brand out there. These young men that we’ve been writing and calling and visiting their schools – they have heard about us. This is an opportunity to put a face with the name, an opportunity to put the school brand out there, to be recognized from the national media exposure that’s given. Even from the commercials that they run – they talk about the schools, the things they have to offer. Playing well on national TV against a very, very good opponent is something that every program looks for once. Particularly, this is a good situation for us, provided we play well. The way recruiting has been going, and the mentality we have been trying to get across to the young men that are out there and their parents, this is another opportunity for us.”

How do you take a week’s worth of preparation and squeeze it into a much shorter time frame between games?

“I believe someone asked me that last night, too. It’s just that you have to kind of take your days and maybe combine together. Monday is [usually] a day off, so basically yesterday, Sunday, we came in and watched a tape of the [last] opponent and watched the scouting report of the upcoming opponent. Because of the shortened days and the opportunities, Sunday was an abbreviated kind of Tuesday practice. We went to the tape and we also did a lot of Miami prep. We did a Miami practice yesterday, so Sunday’s practice was kind of like what we would have on Tuesday. …

Tomorrow’s practice will be like a Wednesday’s practice, and so you’ll have to kind of combine, as I was saying before. Sometimes you’ll do a first and second down and maybe a first practice but now you have to combine some of those elements because you are shorted a day. We’ll have practice again tomorrow and combine kind of a Tuesday, Wednesday practice together and then get ready to go. We will practice early Wednesday morning and leave Wednesday afternoon, one or two o’clock, and have our meetings and get ready to play on the next day.”

You have played a number of your former coaching colleagues already this season. Would you say that you have spent more time with Al Golden, the current Miami coach, than anyone else?

“I would say that’s probably correct. With the time that we were here – I’ll even back up, we were at Boston College and we were here at Virginia, so I would say that’s a fair assessment of my association with Al. Our families are friends and Al was a close friend during the time that my daughter went through her issues, so there’s a personal friendship that goes back.”

The kick return team has been more productive recently. Why is that, and what are your thoughts on Khalek Shepherd ?

“I think part of that has been that the unit has gotten better in terms of understanding the returns, the blocking angles, the techniques. You look at the personnel on that unit. You look at some of these freshmen getting to be two, three, four-phased special teams players. There’s a lot of them that have shown development to this point, as far as the understanding of the scheme and blocking angles. Khalek does a great job of just having an eye – being a running back and having a feel and an eye for the openings and understanding for what we are trying to get done. He has raised the level of his play, allowing us an opportunity to change our field position. We keep continuing to get better as a unit, and he’ll keep continuing to get better as a returner. It will be a bonus or a plus for us.”

Al Golden said yesterday on the Miami teleconference that this will be the first game in which the Hurricanes will have all their players back from suspensions. What are your thoughts on Miami now that everyone will be available to play?

“What you see is a very fast, athletic team. The linebacker [Sean] Spence – he’s truly an incredible player. Travis Benjamin, the wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner, is electric and dynamic. Lamar Miller, the running back, is a big back that’s a hard runner. You see a lot of things that Al has got going that can add up to where they play hard on defense, run around. The quarterback is throwing the ball down the field to some of the skilled receivers; their special teams has become a weapon for them also. I can imagine that with having guys back they will just add to the fact that they are getting better.”

Do you plan to use the same quarterback rotation in the coming weeks?

“That was another question that was posed last night and the way I answered it was that Michael Rocco was the starting quarterback and he will be afforded the opportunity to go in the game and play and do what he needs to do. With David Watford we are not talking about series with him. We are talking about perhaps plays for him. He’s done a nice job. At the same time, it’s tough on a young player when you have the situations on the interceptions. You want to play well, but also at the same time, you have to make sure to continue to bring him along. David will do fine. He’ll be in the game and he’ll play in the game. There probably won’t be the rotation part of it as you’ve been seeing, in order to give [David] a chance to watch, but it will give Michael an opportunity to get in the game and play the game.

I was here when Anthony Martinez played South Carolina as a true freshman and that didn’t go well for him and that didn’t bode well for his confidence. I’m mindful of a young player like David who has a tremendous amount of talent and is going to be a good player here, but I don’t want to put him in the situation where you try to put the ballgame on his shoulder or every decision, every throw, every check, every play call is something that he’s being scrutinized for. In order to take some of that off his plate, I’ve decided to make sure that his role in the offense is one that can provide him a level of success, because he still has to go to class here. He still has to be a lot of things other than just a quarterback for this team.

We are going to go down that route the next five games here, hopefully six games, and we’ll continue to keep developing him and feel much better about his development now with the opportunities that he’s had. He’s been in games, has made big throws, made big runs. For his continued development, we want to make sure that we limit his role a little bit more and let him watch, let him absorb, let him learn, let him play, and let him play at the right opportunities.”

Was that a difficult decision to make? How much of it was based on Watford’s interceptions Saturday against NC State?

“It’s a tough decision for a young man that wants to play, but also it’s a tough decision for a coach that sees that this is a young man. When you’re the starting quarterback and with all of the other issues that you have had, particularly as a freshman, there’s a lot on your plate. Him playing and getting to the point where he’s gotten to now, you just have to make the decision. Do you live with more of that, with adding more to his plate with everything else that he has? Or do you back off his role a little bit and give him an opportunity to still go in and play plays, or use him in personnel groups and things like that, knowing that you still brought him along. God forbid anything happens to your starter.

I’ve talked to all of the quarterbacks and all of them have role and they will continue to have a role, but I’m worried about David Watford as an individual. Some people want him out there, just throw him out there and let him play. We have gotten to this point and evaluated where we are with him and his development. He’ll have opportunities, but not as the opportunities have been presented thus far. He’s embraced his role. He understands, the team understands. Everyone is on the same page of how we try to develop another quarterback and how we try to get guys in the game so they can all add up to helping us.

It’s because of the point where we are, not based on just three interceptions, and as we move forward going down the latter part of the season, giving Michael the opportunity to solidify some things for himself in the game but also giving David the chance to watch and continue to grow seven games into the season. I think he’ll be a better player for it and we’ll be a better team. We haven’t had the opportunity to see both of those guys in there. We are going down the stretch, we are going down the second half of the season, and we want to provide a measure of success for each guy.

Clifton Richardson is another young man that to me is a dynamic player. We are going to have to find ways to get him in the game and give him more opportunities. … With Matt Snyder going down with his injury, what happens now is Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell are presented even more chances for getting in the game. You saw a couple of times where we threw deep balls to Darius; he has that type of speed and he has that type of ability. Some of the young guys have to play and step up because of the roles.

David in particular is going to continue to play, but for his development, he needs to take a step back here and watch a little bit because I think that in the long run, it will be best for him and best for the team. We had to get to this point. We had to get to a point in the season where you try and develop who your quarterbacks are and your depth situation. When you coach, you have to make tough decisions. You make them and you live with them and then you move forward. That’s the decision. It’s been made and we are moving forward; now we are concentrating on how to play a very good Miami team.”

Beating Georgia Tech was a step toward changing public perception of Virginia. Similarly, how big of an impact did John-Kevin Dolce ‘s hit on Jacory Harris last year have on the team’s image?

“Things like that happen in the game in all aspects – big interceptions, big conversions on third down, or whatever. There are a lot of plays that are made in games that sometimes going back to, was the turning point. Obviously everyone saw that hit and everyone saw the implications. It was a legitimate hit, a legal hit, and it was unfortunate that he had to leave the game from that. As far as an emotional turn or emotional boost it may have provided for people that watched that, I think it was another play in a series of what was going on in the game already. There were interceptions and there were big third down runs, conversions, big third down stops. I think that was one that was most notable plays that people look at, but during the course of that game – we won the turnover battle and the field position battles – just different things happened that became the catalyst, a bunch of mini catalysts. The fellows captured how the game was going and ended up having a chance to play really well, coming out, holding on, and getting a victory.

I’m quite sure they have not forgotten it, as a motivating factor for them. We can’t use that. The only thing that was is a play that happened last year. It’s nothing that is going to help us this year. Their quarterback is playing well. He’s done a lot of things that I’m sure Al wanted from him in the beginning. He’s improved and the team has improved; he’s surrounded himself with the running back and Travis Benjamin who really go get it.”

As important as David Watford ‘s maturation process is, what can you say about Michael Rocco’s development?

“I don’t think it’s as much as Michael’s development. Michael played last year, and Michael started out as our starter. I think what it allowed for him to do, even as a true sophomore quarterback, was to watch the game, observe the game, and watch the rotation of the safeties and watch the different aspects of it. I think in terms of his development, him watching, those things have been a benefit for him. His learning curve has continued to increase and improve. Now where we are in the situation with David is, ‘Listen, we are not going to put the added parts on your plate. We’ll take some off your plate.’ Now with Michael, ‘You’ve been through this system. You’ve watched Marc Verica play. You’ve been through the same system, you’ve had the opportunities and started every game. We can add more on your plate.’

The other thing is getting everyone around Michael to raise their level. You have to be able to run the ball better. We have to be able to get the ball to Kris Burd and Tim Smith . Tim for the last couple of games has caught the long touchdown passes, and we need to continue to keep doing that and take multiple shots. I think the best way also to help Michael would be to do some of these other things, run the ball better more and also be able to take those down-the-field shots. Also, I think our defense is playing much better. I think as a coaching staff, this makes sense for us right now where we are. All of the players, teams, everyone knew from behind the scenes what was going on. Now this is an opportunity for us to move forward – rally behind one cause, and the cause is to try to win as many games as we can coming down the stretch.”

The running game has been improving. How much of a say do you have in the number of running plays executed during the game?

“The coaches present how we have to attack a particular team. I think one thing that probably got us behind the count a lot of times is that when you run the ball, you want to get in a situation where your second down is second and five, second and four, and you can always create those third and short situations where you have a chance to move. What happens with us is NC State did a great job on the first down runs and then it became second and 11, second and 10. The way to get out of that and try to minimize that, get half of that, is to throw the ball. We got having to throw the ball to try to get us back on schedule to make a makeable third down. Perry Jones , Kevin Parks and an increased role with Clifton Richardson – obviously they are running backs and that’s their strength. We also need to address the strengths of some of the playmakers that we have to carry the ball.”

Can you expound upon the quarterback situation and when you might use David Watford ?

“No, without also providing a scouting report for anyone else. I would like to get him in for some plays that he can have some success at and build confidence with him in those ways. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Dominique Terrell muffed a punt late in the game. Do you need Chase Minnifield back there in order to ensure a safe catch?

“I asked Coach Poindexter that myself. There were all kind of drills that we got from other places and they actually did a pretty nice job. Even in the game there were a couple of fair catches they made with traffic in their face. Unfortunately some of the traffic was created by our own guys. Trying to block their guys and trying to track their guys presented an extra challenge to them. With this young man, it’s going to take one return where he breaks one level, and everyone else will have a chance to see how dynamic this young man can be. As a coach, you can say, ‘You know what, we are giving up on you.’ Or, you can say, ‘You know what, we believe in you. We’ll continue to keep doing the things that are surrounding you – the guys that are running down and keeping people off of you so they are not breathing down your neck.’ Set up things that keep him successful. He had a great week of practice as you can you tell from some punts in the game, and I think he’s just one catch away from being the dynamic player we recruited and that we believe he can be.”

Do you have any idea where David Watford ‘s head is right now or what he is thinking?

“It’s a great question. It’s a fair question when you’re dealing with it. He’s a young freshman who’s dealing with being a student at this university, being involved in the community here – just so many different things. I think it helps that he has his cousin, Marques Hagans, here who also played the same position. I think it also helps that I’m a relationship type of coach; I like to talk to players and I want players to tell me about how they are feeling and what they are thinking. Everyone wants to have success. No one wants to fail. With everything we do, what you guys do, no one wants to fail. We are all human beings who feel like if something bad happens in the game, ‘Oh, man, I’m the cause of that.’

When you talk about a young player and you talk about the psychology of dealing with a young guy, I continue to keep talking about the things that he can be, the things that he wants to be. I’m kind of the eternal optimist the way I look at things and try to be fair to him. For a young man to think that he lost the game and shoulder an entire perhaps game or turn of a season, I’m not going to allow him to have that type of a decision. I want be you to be a student-athlete. I want to you not to feel like you have to win everything and to relish the role that we are going to give you. Hopefully, with a few wins, maybe there’s an extra opportunity that affords to you get better as a quarterback. With spring practice, another opportunity is going to be afforded you to get better as a quarterback.

But I have to worry about these guys. You see them on the football field. I worry about these guys behind the scenes in everything they do – in the classroom, everything they do. Everything affects them. It’s a domino effect. To be fair to the young man and to be fair to the team … he’s dynamic and he shows flashes of great runs, great throws, but sometimes it might not be in his best interest. That’s a decision that’s made and that’s why we are where we are right now. I think that you guys had a chance to talk to guys after practice. I don’t know if you talked to David or not, but I think he’s at peace with that to be honest with you. He knows he’s still going to play, and there’s some things that we like to do to utilize his talents and his abilities. I’m responsible for these guys in a lot of ways. In a football way, you want it to happen. If it doesn’t manifest itself on the field, it provides a level frustration not only for him but people that are watching. You know that he’s going to be good. Then you make the decision, ‘What’s in the best interests of him?’ The team right now is moving in the direction that we are moving.”

What is your assessment of the defense?

“I think they have been progressing and playing well to tell you the truth. You mention a fact that involves the special teams part of it and the turnovers. When you get the ball on the other side of the 50, or close to the 50, 47, 48, then you’re hoping to get – if not six points – at least a field goal or at least a chance to flip the field again so now they are starting out on their own ten or five or whatever. And I think the last couple of games, particularly where the defense had to make their holds, their stands, they have done a really nice job of playing defense, of coming up with big stops, of coming up with turnovers and providing an opportunity to shorten the field offensively.

When you’re playing, when all cylinders are hitting – all three phases – it’s a great game like the Georgia Tech game. But [when] you need another side to pick up their side of the points, field position, whatever it may be, it makes it tough for you. I think we can play better defensively because, if we give up three turnovers, we have to create one more than they had. That’s got to be the mindset, whatever it is. If they are running the ball, we have to stop the run. If they are throwing the ball, we have to stop the pass.

With the development of players playing defense, LaRoy Reynolds is having an excellent season at linebacker. Steve Greer – excellent season at linebacker. Ausar Walcott , everybody knows he was in the doghouse before, but both he and Aaron Taliaferro are playing well at the linebacker position. That’s critical when you change a defense – critical that they make the calls – and they are responsible for a lot of the run fits.

Coach Reid and the defensive staff have done a nice job. Now we just have to put everything together, put it all together. One side doesn’t get points because of the other side. We all have to play together to win the game. And everybody understands that. That’s why I think our team is stronger and more resilient and more focused now than we were last year. Last year is a different story. You see some maturity, you see some guys still playing hard. Those are the things that you hope just keep tipping the scale for you and give you a chance.”

In hindsight, do you think it would have been better to redshirt David Watford ?

“I think it was important for David to have experienced what he experienced right now on the field and the opportunities that we had to evaluate and assess him in games, in situations. I think if you ask him, he’ll be a much better quarterback. The only other times you would get that experience is by going through the things of the game. Otherwise we would be talking about him next year, getting in the game and getting some game experience. You have to ask him that, too. I think he would give you an honest answer himself about the opportunities that were afforded him. He wanted to do well, get it done well. We would not be having this conversation, but he didn’t and he tried. Now it’s time to make sure that this young man doesn’t continue to experience the weight of the world on his shoulders or defeat – that we try to provide opportunities for him, that ‘this was a good season for you, a good learning curve for you, and you’ll get better at this because you’ve been in games. You’ve made big plays, big throws, big runs.’ I think he’ll become a better player from this experience.”

Are you concerned that other teams will use NC State’s same defensive strategy?

“That’s another good question. A lot of times when you’re game planning another team, you look at what worked for the previous game or what’s worked in the past. They were tuned to take the outside plays away and set the edge, so all pass drops would have to step up into the pocket. Through practice yesterday and through practice today, you understand that Miami has a way that they play, but you can’t stick your hand in the sand and say there will not be some copycat things. They may try to. We are going to address how to attack those particular types of teams. Practice today; we’ll do it again tomorrow. We’ll keep doing it until game time.”

What is the difference between Jacory Harris this year and Jacory Harris last year?

“I think he’s much more patient in the pocket. You see sometimes people are rushing at him. I listened to Al – how he was assessing Jacory – talking about him having patience and developing second and third reads and he would become a better quarterback, more experienced quarterback. Part of that is having some surrounding guys, surrounding cast around you. Their offensive line is big. You have Lamar Miller and those guys that can run the ball for; you have Travis Benjamin and the other wide receivers. He’s like 6’5”, he’s unbelievable.

He can throw it up. With all quarterbacks, you hope that they have been around the scheme, the system. They learn how to be a quarterback by reading coverages. Everybody is telling them, ‘Hey, you, step up to the pocket, feel the rush, this is what you need to do.’ I think he’s benefitting from that, from having a successful year thus far and where they are now offensively. And he’ll just continue to get better, I believe. He’s already got the height and the arm strength and the skills, and you can point it out. His touchdown to interception ratio has dramatically increased because he can read the routes and he can put the ball and place the ball where it needs to be placed. That’s a benefit to Miami as his development continues.”

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