Sunday, September 18, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavs QB Michael Rocco provides top-shelf quality

Cavs QB provides top-shelf quality

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco is lot like Diet Mountain Lion.

Diet Mountain Lion is Food Lion's version of Diet Mountain Dew. You might not have known that, and that's understandable. Discount soda companies don't advertise. They don't try to convince you that their products are the best; they just put them out there on the shelf, trusting in their quality-to-price ratio.

If you want to try it, great. Maybe you'll like it. And if you don't like it? Well, at least they never lied to you.

There couldn't have been less hype coming out of Charlottesville about Rocco this preseason. Coach Mike London didn't officially name him the starting quarterback until the Monday before the first game. The announcement was pretty much a formality at that point - most, including Rocco himself, assumed he'd get the job.

But the delay did two things: 1. It cut the opportunity for Rocco promotion by at least 80 percent; and 2. It gave the impression that nobody was good enough to separate himself, leading to the assumption that the quarterback position was going to be a major deficiency for UVa.

It isn't. Rocco's been undersold to us. And that, much like Diet Mountain Lion (try it!), is pretty refreshing.

On Saturday, his first ACC test as the starting QB, Rocco acquitted himself well against a very good North Carolina defense. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 287 yards. He threw his first touchdown pass of the year. He ran for another score on a play where he should have been sacked.

The Cavaliers lost the game 28-17, but they found a few answers when it comes to their offensive leader.

"There were a couple of plays out there that showed the presence of what a quarterback has to do," London said. "I thought he made a couple of good throws. †I do think he took a step forward today in leading the team and doing some of the things that we've asked him to do."

Again, we're still not dealing in trumpets and red carpets here. But UVa fans should like a lot of what they saw from the sophomore out of Lynchburg. He had nice touch on many of his intermediate passes. He set up the screen superbly on the touchdown pass.

Most of all, he showed he could drive the Cavs down the field multiple times. What happened after that usually wasn't pretty - 10 of their 13 possessions failed to produce points, for a variety of reasons - but at least they know they can move it.

"We've got a long way to go, but there's a glimpse of hope for us," Rocco said. "We see what our offense can be."

Maybe the most surprising thing about Rocco? For a guy with good size (6-foot-3, 225 pounds), he's pretty nimble in and around the pocket. UNC's relentless defensive front sacked him only once, and that came on the first drive of the game. Rocco still managed to limit the loss to two yards.

The touchdown run should have been a loss of five or more. Rocco eluded the sack and darted up the middle, then dove into the end zone for the 4-yard score.

"I've always thought of myself as an athletic person," Rocco said, when asked if his mobility is underplayed. "I guess that's a good thing, being underrated. They don't expect me to run the ball, and it might open things up.

"I played safety all through high school, and I was recruited as both a safety and a quarterback. I feel I'm a mobile guy."

Rocco said he liked the way the preseason played out. The lengthy competition only made him more focused, he figures, and whatever doubts his teammates might have had about him have dissipated with time.

"I think it comes with playing the game," he said. "Whenever your guys see you playing the game and see you doing well and leading the team, there's kind of a ripple effect. Your guys are like, 'Yeah, he's a leader now. We're going to respond to him and follow him.' "

They might just be surprised where he takes them. With so little promised, there's little to lose either way.

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