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U.Va.-Richmond game a uniquely bizarre quarterback confluence

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At least four quarterbacks who signed with Virginia, and perhaps five, will play Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium. And no, this isn't an intrasquad scrimmage.

Rather, Saturday's clash between the Cavaliers and Richmond is a unique and bizarre confluence of Virginia's serial quarterback drama, instability and mismanagement.

Seniors Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco, transfers from U.Va., will play for the Spiders. Sophomores Greyson Lambert, Matt Johns, and maybe even junior David Watford — remember last season's starter? — will share snaps for the Cavaliers.

For Saturday, and for drastically different reasons, both coaches are wise to divide playing time at a position that usually caters to one.

Richmond's Danny Rocco has two proven quarterbacks. Virginia's Mike London is searching for one.

As an odd man out in a crowded competition at Virginia, Strauss transferred to Richmond after a 2011 season in which Rocco quarterbacked the Cavaliers to an 8-5 record and Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance. Last year, Strauss passed for Spiders records of 3,808 yards and 26 touchdowns.

Rocco, Danny's nephew, bailed from Virginia after a 2012 season in which London and then-offensive coordinator Bill Lazor undermined his confidence by juggling him and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims. Rocco sat out last year per NCAA rules.

Strauss started Richmond's 55-10 rout of Morehead State last week, throwing for 259 yards and three scores. Rocco passed for 117 and one.

"We kind of had a rotation where we wanted Strauss to go out there for the first four series and then we were going to send Mike (Rocco) out there for two, then re-evaluate at halftime," Danny Rocco said Monday.

Instead, Strauss played the first five series and seven of the first eight. Rocco played three.

"That will not necessarily be the pattern each and every week," Danny Rocco said, "but I do think we'll have a premeditated thought and plan as to how we're going to use our quarterbacks. … I think in that opening game we felt we had a little more control over our ability to dictate. Obviously this week, we don't have that feeling. We won't be quite as free to just substitute the quarterback position."

Few envisioned London substituting for Lambert in Saturday's opener versus No. 7 UCLA. But after the Bruins returned two Lambert interceptions for touchdowns in the second quarter, Johns took over, passing for two scores and leading a comeback that fell short in a 28-20 setback.

Speaking at his weekly gabfest Monday, London declined to identify a starter against Richmond but said both will play. Any why not? After Johns' superb relief effort but Lambert's clear superiority during training camp, why not use a game against a Championship Subdivision opponent as an audition for the full-time gig?

London insisted that Lambert, pictured on Virginia's media guide cover along with fellow captains Kevin Parks, Henry Coley and Anthony Harris, understood and does not resent the UCLA hook.

"Greyson Lambert is a captain," London said. "He was part of the leadership council. He was part of the group that said, 'Coach, we want to be held to higher standards. We want to be responsible.' Understanding that he played, he did some good things. We made a switch, and when Matt Johns came in, Matt Johns played well. It's not unreasonable to think that a guy that came in and produced (deserves to play)."

Richmond closed last season with four victories, including upsets of nationally ranked Delaware and William and Mary. But even with Strauss, Rocco and Bowl Subdivision-caliber receiver Stephen Barnette, the Spiders will be hard-pressed to handle a Virginia defensive front that sacked UCLA's Brett Hundley five times.

That should help the Cavaliers build a comfortable lead and allow London to substitute liberally, which could translate to mop-up duty for Watford.

I asked London when and why the coaching staff elevated Johns over Watford, a Hampton High graduate and touted recruit. His long answer boiled down to "the ability to really grasp the offense."

Naturally, London had nothing but praise for Rocco and Strauss, citing Strauss' arm strength and confidence, and Rocco's efficiency. Defensive lineman Mike Moore called Rocco's transfer "definitely a shock," and defensive back Brandon Phelps said, "I was really sad to see him go, but that was a personal decision for him."

"I'm trying the best I can just to remove myself from all the emotions that there can be in this game," Michael Rocco told the Richmond Times-Dispatch's John O'Connor.

Saturday will be Strauss' second game against the Cavaliers. As a backup in 2012, he made his collegiate debut at Scott Stadium and threw a touchdown pass in Richmond's 43-19 defeat.

Adding to the intrigue, Danny Rocco has named Strauss and Michael Rocco as the Spiders' game captains for Saturday. Danny Rocco said that after the team elected three permanent captains, he asked his other seniors to request games for which they'd like to serve as one-day captains.

"Mike and Mike both listed Virginia," Danny Rocco said. "I mean, there's a surprise, right?"

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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