CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia quarterback David Watford considers his Clemson counterpart, Tajh Boyd, a mentor and friend, hardly a surprise given their shared position, roots and demeanor. But Saturday's clash between the Cavaliers and Tigers will be only the second time these Peninsula products have competed on the same field.
As in their 2008 high school matchup, this game showcases Boyd as a senior leading a team with championship aspirations against sophomore Watford, in his first season as a starter for a decided underdog.
"I saw what he was doing, how good he was and the potential that he had," Watford recalled Monday of Boyd. "He kind of took me under his wing when I was in high school, so we're pretty close from that."
No matter that Boyd played for Phoebus, the fierce, cross-town rival of Watford's Hampton Crabbers. Athletes from the 757 area code have a unique bond, particularly the quarterbacks.
Watford reminisced Monday about several of the renowned who preceded him: Ronald Curry, Michael and Marcus Vick, Tyrod Taylor. He called Curry, a fellow Crabber and current San Francisco 49ers assistant coach, "one of the best quarterbacks to (ever) play high school football, in my opinion. … I'm watching guys like him as a little kid, I'm not even playing football yet."
Watford, spot-on about Curry by the way, said that in youth leagues he just wanted "to be like those guys." He recalled Michael Vick in his early NFL years returning home to volunteer at the Peninsula All-Star Football Camp run by Watford's uncle, Carl Francis.
"Just learning from all those guys is a blessing," Watford said.
Watford didn't mention his lone game against Boyd, and hard to blame him. Phoebus smacked Hampton 42-6 en route to an undefeated, state-championship season.
Returning from a two-game absence caused by a sprained knee, Boyd completed 9-of-12 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown, the scoring toss caught by current Virginia linebacker Daquan Romero. Watford was 4-of-10 for 14 yards with an interception.
Boyd has since made first-team All-ACC as a sophomore and junior, a high bar for Watford to clear on the field. But off the field, both have the vibrant personality and strong work ethic most effective leaders possess.
And like Boyd in 2011 at Clemson, Watford is progressing in his first season as a college starter. In last week's 35-25 loss to Georgia Tech, he set school records for completions (43) and attempts (61), and his 376 yards rank No. 4 in school history. Perhaps most important for Watford, his 70.5 percent accuracy was his best against a Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Boyd is a consistent 60-percent-plus passer and ranks second in ACC history to North Carolina State's Philip Rivers (2000-03) in career passing yards (10,296) and total offense (11,291). But his legitimate Heisman Trophy aspirations likely vanished two weeks ago, when he completed only 17-of-37 passes and threw two interceptions in a 51-14 home loss to No. 3 Florida State.
But Boyd rebounded with 304 passing yards and a touchdown throw in Saturday's 40-27 victory at Maryland. He completed 28-of-41 attempts, 68.3-percent accuracy far more in line with his standards.
Boyd "can fit the ball in tight windows and has the ability to get himself out of trouble in the pocket when he's being pressured," said Virginia safety Anthony Harris, who shares the national interceptions lead, five, with Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Coached by Dabo Swinney, Clemson (7-1, 5-1 ACC) ranks eighth in the Bowl Championship Series, while Virginia (2-6, 0-4) must win its four remaining regular-season games to become bowl eligible. Those divergent paths coupled with conference expansion have diluted what once was a true rivalry.
Saturday is Virginia's first game against Clemson since 2009, Al Groh's final season as the Cavaliers' coach, and the Tigers' first visit to Charlottesville since 2008. Barring an ACC championship game encounter in the next six years, Virginia and Clemson will not meet again until 2020 at Death Valley.
Expansion was unavoidable as conferences and schools became more dependent on football television revenue, and networks demanded more inventory. But its most regrettable cost is the infrequency with which some league colleagues now play.
So Clemson and Virginia hardly are familiar with one another — except the quarterbacks.
"Tajh, I've known him for a long time coming out of Phoebus High School," Cavaliers coach Mike London said, "and he's very mature, very focused, and now one of the leaders on that Clemson team. You hear Coach Swinney talk about Tajh and those leadership capabilities, it's no wonder that they're playing well because he's one of the main focal points of that team, and then as he plays, the rest of the team plays."
If the protégé can match the mentor, Saturday could be a show.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun