Sunday, September 02, 2012
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia's Sims shows skills, but Rocco's not giving it up

CHARLOTTESVILLE - While warming up on the sidelines in the fourth quarter to make his Virginia debut at quarterback, Phillip Sims had one thought in mind.

"Don't fumble the first snap," he said.

He didn't. For that matter, neither did Michael Rocco.

Given their first opportunities in 2012 to prove they deserve to be the guy, Rocco and Sims both looked sharp in UVa's 43-19 victory over Richmond on Saturday. The Cavs exit the weekend with the same ideas they had coming in: Rocco's the starter, and Sims has a world of potential.

That's a good thing. After leading the Cavs to eight wins last season, Rocco deserves the chance to lose the job in game situations. He didn't do it Saturday, throwing for 311 yards and a touchdown in three quarters while avoiding interceptions.

It was a strong performance, and Rocco needed it. He knows that given Sims' pedigree - VHSL record-setter, Alabama transfer, big-league tools - there's a potential QB controversy lurking should his performance slip. So far, he's done an exceptional job of blocking that out.

"I really stay out of the media, stay out of newspapers, just really listen to what the coaches say," Rocco said after completing 25 of 37 throws. "They're really the ultimate critic of what I have to do and what he has to do to get better."

The Spiders did the Cavaliers a favor by stacking the box with eight players and essentially announcing that their goal was to stop the running game. That allowed Rocco to spread the ball around, hitting guys on stop routes and hitch routes while taking the occasional shot downfield.

Sims, meanwhile, gave us a peek at why he's so highly regarded. Connecting on his first five passing attempts, he directed an 87-yard scoring drive on his maiden Scott Stadium possession.

Sims' longest pass was a 24-yard completion to E.J. Scott that he lofted perfectly from the right hash to the left sideline. But he was happier with the seven-yard bullet he threw to Tim Smith on third-and-3.

The reason? He had to make a progression from the far right side of the field all the way to his left and spot the open man - all on a three-step drop.

"It's not something you can really simulate in practice a lot because you don't get that look," Sims said. "So when it happens, you've got to make it. I thought that was one of the better decisions that I made."

Mastering the offense is the final challenge for Sims, who says he knows between 85 to 90 percent of the entire playbook. Of course, they don't pull out the whole playbook for each individual opponent.

"With the game plan, if I'm not 100 percent, there's something wrong with me," Sims. "I have to be able to execute every play that the coach is asking me to run. รข? I have to go in every week and study the playbook, each game plan, and I have to know just as much as Rocco and Dave [Watford] and everybody else in the room.

"Because if not, and I have to go in, we're screwed. I definitely won't do that to the team, and I'm not going to let myself down. I know I'm better than that, and I know what I'm capable of doing."

UVa fans have a better idea of that today, too, even if Sims only played one quarter. They also should have noticed improvement in Rocco, who didn't try to force as many passes as he did last year.

Sims' job during the first three quarters was to follow around the player on the sidelines who was giving signals to Rocco. Then he'd try to envision calling the play and executing it - in his words, taking a "mental rep."

That's something he's familiar with, having backed up A.J. McCarron at Alabama last year.

"It's something that I'm not going to say I'm necessarily the happiest about," Sims said. "But hey, you've got to do what you've got to do to help the team and yourself sometimes. ... You want to be the guy, but you've got to go out there and improve every day so you can be the guy."

And the other guy's got to be willing to give it up. On Saturday, Rocco was not.

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