ACC All Access: Virginia's Phillip Sims makes solid debut against Richmond, but don't read into it too much

If we’re being honest, Phillip Sims played in more important games at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake than the one he played in Saturday against Richmond in Virginia’s season-opener.

Not that Sims was arguing otherwise. As a matter of fact, he considered his effort at quarterback in relief of starter Michael Rocco in the fourth quarter against Richmond – when Sims entered with U.Va. leading 36-12 – nothing more than a warm-up. Then again, it was pretty impressive as far as warm-ups go.

“There’s not really much you can take from it,” said Sims, who went 5 of 6 passing for 50 yards while playing two fourth quarter drives. “You’ve just got to keep progressing. I don’t think this was a big test for me. I just felt it was something exciting to do to go out there and get a couple plays under your belt, but there’s not really too much you can take away as a learning experience.

“If you get vanilla looks at the end of the game, it’s not really something you’re going to learn a lot from. You’ll learn a lot more from studying film and going to practice every day and getting the reps. This was fun, but I don’t think it was the big learning experience that a lot of people think it is.”

That’s an honest assessment from a guy who added the first thing he thought about on the sideline when he was loosening his arm prior to going in the game was not fumbling the first snap. He didn’t.

If nothing else, he showed the kind of arm strength and accuracy that was advertised when he transferred in May from Alabama. He hit a deep out pattern to wide receiver E.J. Scott for a 24-yard gain while connecting on his first five pass attempts to help move U.Va. from its own 13-yard line to Richmond’s 28. The 87-yard drive ended up being U.Va.’s longest of the day – 14 plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Khalek Shepherd with 5:23 left to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 43-12.

“You don’t want to be the guy that goes in and screws everything up,” Sims said. “If I go in and go 0 for 5 instead of 5 for 5 on that drive, everybody would be saying, ‘Get him out of the game.’”

Still, this was Richmond, a Football Championship Subdivision foe that entered the game on an eight-game losing streak and that finished last season 69th in the nation in total defense (369.1 yards per game) out of 120 FCS programs. Call it nothing more than an impressive starting point for Sims, but not one that tells an awful lot about the future.


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Sims is used to competition. He’s had to compete for a starting job his entire college career – a starting job he has yet to win, which has to be particularly frustrating for a guy who came out of Oscar Smith in 2010 considered by most recruiting analysts one of the nation’s top three quarterback prospects.

“It’s something I did all last year,” Sims said. “Me and (Alabama quarterback) A.J. (McCarron) competed all offseason and into the first game of the season, and it didn’t come out the way I wanted. I had to do what was necessary for me to improve, but also what the team needed of me. It’s something I’m not going to say I’m necessarily the happiest about (doing at U.Va.), but hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to help yourself and the team sometimes. It’s something I’ve done before, so I’m not uncomfortable with it. You want to be the guy, but you’ve got to go out there and improve everyday so you can be the guy.”

At this point, there’s no quarterback controversy in Charlottesville. Rocco, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown against Richmond, is the starter until further notice. Of course, there’s still no telling exactly what it will take for Rocco to be supplanted? A bad game or two? A bad quarter? A disastrous drive? Something off the field?

Those aren’t topics U.Va. coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor discuss in a public forum. Right now, Lazor is willing to assess what he has with both quarterbacks at his disposal.

“When we watch the video, there’ll be a couple times where we forced the ball down the field when we probably should’ve thrown the check-down,” said Lazor, presumably of Rocco’s effort against Richmond. “That’s hard…You want to be in the position as the coach where you can call plays and have down the field options and that you trust that the quarterback is going to take it when it’s there. If it’s not (there), hit the intermediate one. If (the intermediate route isn’t there), check it down. If they would do that every time, life would be easy for me, but that’s not how it goes. That’s what we’re working towards.

“I thought Mike did a real nice job managing the football game. We had a lot of good things happen out there, certainly a lot of production…I know both of the guys that played today are going to get better because they’re students of the game. They’re very serious about being great quarterbacks, and I think they have the ability to be great quarterbacks.”

Rocco and Sims both targeted wide receiver Tim Smith quite a bit. Smith finished with six catches for a game-high 96 yards. Receiver Darius Jennings also had a big game, logging career highs with five catches for 84 yards.

Rocco’s 311 yards gave him two straight 300-plus yardage games. He threw for a career-high 312 yards last season in the Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn. He’s the first U.Va. quarterback to have back-to-back 300-plus passing yardage since 2009, when Jameel Sewell passed for 312 at Southern Mississippi and came back to Scot Stadium to throw for 308 yards against Indiana.

The passing yards against Richmond accounted for a massive chunk of U.Va.’s 545 total yards. It was the second-most yards generated by U.Va. in a game since London took over to start the ’10 season, surpassed only by U.Va.’s 643 yards in the ’10 season in a 55-48 loss at Duke.

While the critiquing of the quarterbacks will continue throughout the season, there’s also film to look at of several true freshmen that played in Saturday’s game. U.Va. played nine true freshmen against Richmond – Demeitre Brim, Maurice Canady, Trent Corney, Anthony Cooper, Adrian Gamble, Eli Harold, Kwontie Moore, Mike Moore and Canaan Severin.

None of the appearances by the true freshmen was all that surprising, except for perhaps Corney, who played special teams. Corney, a native of Ontario, was expected to be redshirted.

One young player who didn’t get a chance to play was U.Va. sophomore running back Clifton Richardson, a Menchville High graduate. Richardson was hampered early in preseason practices by a hamstring injury.

London said Richardson was held out of the game due to a leg injury, but London wouldn’t go into further detail except to say Richardson would be available for next Saturday’s game against Penn State.

With Richardson out, Lafayette High graduate Will Hill was U.Va.’s most prominent Peninsula-area product on the field (he had one tackle in just his second career start at defensive tackle), but by far the most productive Peninsula-area natives in the game wore Richmond jerseys.

Receiver Ben Edwards, a York High graduate, and linebacker Darius McMillan, a Phoebus High alum, were both significant contributors for Richmond. Edwards led the Spiders with six catches for 59 yards, while McMillan played with a broken hand and still logged 10 tackles.

“Some plays it could be me looking for (Edwards) in his matchup because he’s a great route runner,” Richmond quarterback John Laub said. “He’s a great receiver overall. Some of the stuff where he was in the middle was designed to get him the ball quick and let him make plays, but certain plays that was just who the ball was supposed to go to. Ben is a great player.”


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