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UVa QB David Watford completed 20 passes in Saturday’s loss to Duke, and only three were to wide receivers.
Andrew Shurtleff | The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress
Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell (right) gets a hand on a pass intended for Virginia wide receiver Darius Jennings in the Blue Devils’ 35-22 win over the Cavaliers on Saturday.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It was a rare 2013 Virginia football preview that didn’t list wide receivers as one of the Cavaliers’ special features.
Virginia got a combined 135 receptions last year from wide receivers Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell, E.J. Scott and Tim Smith — and each had at least one season of remaining eligibility.
All four played Saturday in the Cavaliers’ 35-22 loss to Duke and, among them, had one reception. That came on a 51-yard completion to Smith that set up the touchdown that gave Virginia a 14-0 lead after the first quarter.
Of the 20 passes completed by quarterback David Watford, three were to wide receivers, with recently christened starters Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins accounting for one apiece.
With growing regularity during a four-game losing streak, UVa head coach Mike London has been getting the question, “What’s with the wide receivers?”
Virginia’s game with Duke followed a 27-26 loss at Maryland, where tight end Jake McGee had more receptions (eight) than all the UVa wideouts combined (seven).
Against Duke, running back Kevin Parks, with six receptions, doubled the wide receivers’ production.
Several things have changed since last season, starting with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who took over following the February resignation of Bill Lazor, the Cavaliers’ offensive coordinator from 2010-12.
However, nobody would say that Fairchild’s offense represents a radical departure from the system Lazor was using.
Under Lazor, now the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Virginia passed for more than 3,000 yards in three straight seasons, a Cavaliers first.
That streak is unlikely to continue, although Watford has passed for more than 250 yards in the past two games and has a total of four 200-yard games.
Watford, a redshirt sophomore, isn’t new to the system. However, he is in his first season as a starter.
When the wide receivers were putting up prolific numbers in 2013, the UVa quarterbacks were Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims, both underclassmen and both now gone.
Rocco transferred to Richmond after the 2012 season and Sims was declared academically ineligible after the spring semester, leading to his transfer to Winston-Salem State, where he becomes eligible in 2014.
Rocco started 21 of 26 games over the past two seasons and while he was prone to occasional interceptions, he was the starter for UVa wins over Penn State, Florida State and Miami (twice).
Rocco was intercepted eight times in the first five games last year, at which point he lost the starting job that he ultimately regained.
Watford has been intercepted eight times in seven games but, while decision-making was an issue for Rocco, accuracy comes more into play with Watford.
When he’s missing receivers, Watford is almost invariably high with his throws.
“One of the things is just a release factor,” London said this week. “David works on that every day with Steve Fairchild, and he knows it’s a point of improvement that must be made.”
After Virginia dropped a 14-3 decision to Pittsburgh, London revealed that UVa receivers had dropped 10 passes. If a receiver gets his hand on a ball, the Cavaliers’ staff considers it a drop if he doesn’t catch it.
“You can expect to see one [drop] here or there,” London said at the time.
London took swift action, installing Johnson (6 foot 3, 200 pounds) and Dockins (6-3, 205) as the starters in place of Jennings and Smith. If the wide receivers weren’t catching the ball, London reasoned, it might help to have some bigger players on the field for blocking purposes.
London said the Cavaliers had five or six drops against Duke and there was an assortment of culprits. The veteran wide receivers haven’t been phased out completely. Jennings had a leaping grab in the Cavaliers’ ill-fated final drive at Maryland and has been returning kickoffs.
Smith has been returning punts.
“All players want to play,” London said, “and [Jennings and Smith] are guys that have had significant roles. What they have done right now is embrace their roles. On the special-teams unit, they know that’s a one-play opportunity to change the course of the game.
“They’ve been great teammates. If that’s their role now, then they will do the best they can to make it happen.”
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