Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: QB competition good for Cavaliers

The former Oscar Smith star says he'll work hard to improve and silence doubters.

CHARLOTTESVILLE - The play-action looked convincing, the setup looked crisp and the arm strength looked legit. Late in Virginia's first fall football practice Monday, Phillip Sims zipped a dart over the middle to tight end Paul Freedman that would have gone for 15 yards or more.

Then the next snap came. Sims dropped quickly and fired toward the sidelines. Bad one. The ball skipped on the turf about six feet away from the diving receiver.

Sims remains a work in progress, and he knows it. For all the talent, the high school records and the hype, the Alabama transfer knows he's got a lot of work to do to fulfill the popular prediction that he'll unseat incumbent quarterback Michael Rocco this fall.

"I'm not the best that I've ever been, and I didn't expect to be on Day One," Sims said in his first meeting with the media since transferring to UVa in May. "I will be better; that's just the way football is. I haven't practiced since April 15 at Alabama, in the spring game."

Since then, Sims has changed schools and been granted an NCAA waiver that will allow him to compete immediately. His presence has also injected some potential controversy into the UVa quarterback derby.

Not that he's stoking any of that himself.

"We've been great together," Sims said of the other QBs. "David [Watford] and Rock have helped me since I've been here and showed me the ropes. They're teaching me, embracing me. There's no hatred towards anybody, no hazing. We're competing, but at the end of the day we're teammates. Whoever has to be called on on Sept. 1 is who all of us have to support."

Sims admitted that there were some nerves coming into his first practice at a new school, but he looked poised in the huddle and under center. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor decided to challenge him, allowing Sims to take reps with the second-team offense.

Lazor liked what he saw, even before his new quarterback stepped on the field.

"I was really impressed with him in the meetings, how he took notes, the questions he asked, his attention," Lazor said. "I'd heard all those positive things about him, but it's still great to see it yourself. I thought it was a good first day for him."

Sims said he couldn't provide any more details on his waiver application beyond saying: "I have a family member that had a heart surgery, and I was able to get the NCAA to approve the appeal." It was a stressful period, he said, as he constantly filled out paperwork and solicited information from doctors.

"It was nerve-racking not knowing what direction your career's going to go in," he said. "Somebody else has your career in their hands. But at the same time, I'm blessed that they gave me the opportunity to come out here."

Rocco, Sims and Watford all said they'd be comfortable with whatever decision the coaches make. Regardless of how it shakes out, they're all enjoying the ramped-up competition.

"This is what makes teams great: competition," Sims said. "I mean, you can't win championships if you have no competition at each position on the football field. It's just the way football is. There's three receivers, you got five linemen, you got [multiple] running backs, but only one quarterback can play at a time.

"I've learned it, I've accepted it, and this is what I have to go through. Each and every one of us wants to play. We've got to beat each other out."

That's good news for the coaches. Rarely will their mandates go unheard.

"Right now, it's a lot of fun in the meeting room for me," Lazor said with a smile. "I've got five guys in there burning holes in my head with their eyes and taking notes. I've got five intense guys. I might have to have coach London pop in like in a clown outfit sometimes to kind of break up the room."

No joke: For Sims, in particular, just getting back on the field was a relief.

"Nobody thought I could play at Alabama," Sims said. "Then I got there and I competed and did well and some people said, 'Oh, he'll never start there.' And then I left. They'll say, 'Oh, he's not that good anyway.' Then I got here. 'Oh, he's not going to play there either.'

"So there's been doubt since I graduated from Oscar Smith High School. My job is to come out here and shut everybody up, to be honest."

One dart at a time.

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