As soon as Michael Rocco had a chance to sit down and talk football with Bill Lazor for the first time, Rocco knew where he wanted to spend his college years.
Sitting down with Lazor in Jan. 2010, just days after Lazor was hired by coach Mike London to be Virginia's offensive coordinator, Rocco realized he and Lazor spoke the same language when it came to their mutual admiration of the pro style offense. With Lazor running the offense, U.Va. was the right fit for Rocco.
"Our relationship has grown tremendously through the two years that we've been here, and the two seasons that we've had together," said Rocco, who will lead U.Va.'s offense on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn (7-5).
Rocco learned the offense from his father, Frank, who coached him in a one-back pro style offense at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg. Lazor absorbed the nuances of the pro style attack by working as an assistant coach in the National Football League with former Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and former Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.
"From the first time I sat down to talk football with Mike, it was clear that he has great acumen for football," said Lazor, a rumored candidate earlier this month for Florida's offensive coordinator job, but who will remain in Charlottesville.
"It's a good test for a quarterback to give him information a certain way, and then see if he can deduce different things about that information you haven't given him yet and kind of ask questions and get around the information all different ways. Some guys can give it back to you only the way you gave it. Some guys you know from questioning really understand the issue, and can look at it from all different directions. I think from the beginning Michael has shown me the ability to do that."
So, Rocco had the pedigree and the aptitude, but he still had to earn the job. He received mop-up duty as a true freshman last season, playing in six games and attempting just 25 passes.
In the first seven games this season, he started, but had to share a lot of reps with freshman David Watford, a Hampton High graduate. Rocco threw four touchdowns and eight interceptions in those games.
Since taking over near sole possession of the job in U.Va.'s last five games, he has completed 87 of 143 passes (61 percent) for 1,173 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions and, more importantly, led the Cavaliers to a 4-1 record in those games.
"I've really taken this season as I've been the starting quarterback from day one," Rocco said. "My mindset is to prepare like I have, make sure I know the details of the offense and knowing things inside and out to make sure that I'm the best guy every day."
U.Va. (8-4) is 49th in the nation in total offense (396.8 yards per game) out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, including an average of 165 rushing yards per game, which represents U.Va.'s best rushing average since 2004 (243 yards per game). Last season, U.Va. was 37th in total offense (404.8 yards per game).
Former U.Va. coach Al Groh also ran a pro style offense for the majority of his nine seasons in Charlottesville, but the Cavaliers never finished in the top 50 in the nation in total offense in back-to-back seasons under Groh. In the four seasons prior to the arrival of London and Lazor, U.Va. was 118th in total offense in 2009 (269.6 yards per game), 105th in '08 (299.8 yards per game), 101st in '07 (330.4 yards per game) and 113th in '06 (257.2 yards per game).
Its best season under Groh was '04, when U.Va. was 24th in total offense (423.4 yards per game) with Ron Prince as the offensive coordinator and Hampton High graduate Marques Hagans at quarterback.
Tommy Thigpen, Auburn's defensive backs coach, went to high school at Potomac High in Dumfries and was recruited to play linebacker at U.Va. before he decided to head to UNC to play for former Tar Heels coach Mack Brown. Thigpen understands the challenges Lazor's offense, which Thigpen describes as a "run the ball, run the ball, play action" style typical of U.Va. teams over the years, presents for Auburn.
"What we're seeing is a team that doesn't allow you to do much on defense," said Thigpen, whose pass defense is 44th in the nation (211 yards per game). "With all the shifting and the motions, they create a lot of confusion. So, if you have a young team like we have, it limits you…We have to be pretty vanilla. Communication is key."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun