BLACKSBURG — By the time kickoff arrives Saturday, Virginia quarterback Phillip Sims will have put fond recollections of his last trip to Lane Stadium in the past and moved on to the present.
In 2008, Sims, current U.Va. running back Perry Jones and wide receiver Tim Smith helped lead Oscar Smith High to a 54-24 win against Osbourn High in the Group AAA Division 6 state championship game. Now, the trio is set to return to the scene of one of their greatest wins, but Sims will do so as one half of a likely quarterback rotation with Michael Rocco, and as a double-digit underdog with U.Va.
The latter represents the reality of Sims' situation these days, but the memories in Blacksburg are sweet.
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Lane Stadium, 265 Spring Road, Blacksburg, VA 24060
"Sometimes when you're going through stretches like we did this season, it's nice to get back to how you used to play the game, how you used to have fun, how much fun you have playing this game," Sims said. "Sometimes it's good to be a kid again."
Getting a firm grasp of U.Va.'s offense in the second half of this season has meant maturing along with a partner at the quarterback position. In wins at North Carolina State and against Miami in November, and a loss against North Carolina, Rocco and Sims took turns leading the offense with mixed results.
Rocco completed 52 of 76 passes for 538 yards, five touchdowns and an interception in the three games – very strong numbers overall, but the interception went for a touchdown return in the loss to UNC. Sims completed 27 of 41 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns to go along with two touchdown runs.
"It's probably safe to say that both quarterbacks will play, but to the extent of how much and when and where, I mean, that remains to be seen," said U.Va. coach Mike London regarding how the quarterbacks will be used against Virginia Tech (5-6 overall, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), which has an eight-game winning streak against U.Va. and needs to win to get bowl-eligible for a 20th consecutive season.
While the passing numbers and efficiency have been solid during U.Va.'s use of the rotation, which has been a completely random according to London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, U.Va. (4-7, 2-5) has still been inconsistent in the red zone and on third downs.
Against Miami, U.Va. scored touchdowns on all six of its trips in the red zone and converted first downs on 9 of 14 (64.3 percent) opportunities on third downs.
In the N.C. State and UNC games combined, U.Va. scored on six of its 10 red zone chances, but only one of the trips resulted in a touchdown. U.Va. also converted just 6 of 32 (18.9 percent) third downs into first downs.
Tech knows a little about using the two-quarterback system. Quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain did it with Sean Glennon and Hampton High graduate Tyrod Taylor in both the 2007 and '08 seasons.
The rotation served its purpose, as Tech won ACC championships in both seasons, but O'Cain admits he'd much prefer to go with just one quarterback in an ideal situation.
"I feel like it was the best thing for our football team at the time," O'Cain said. "I'm not sure if one of them had played the total time we'd have won an ACC championship."
Tech will come at Rocco and Sims with a more ferocious pass rush than they've likely seen all season long. In the last five weeks, Tech has racked up a total of 22 sacks, helping propel Tech into a tie for first place in the ACC with N.C. State in the category (30 sacks for the season).
"They run the same offense," said Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster of the two quarterbacks. "It looks to me they run the same offense. Both Rocco and Sims have live arms. It seems like to me Rocco is a guy that's a little bit more disciplined from the standpoint of throwing checkdowns and things of that nature. I think Sims is a guy that throws it down the field maybe a little bit more."
If U.Va. has the services of starting right tackle Morgan Moses, who is probable despite suffering a lower leg injury against UNC, the chances of squelching Tech's pass rush increase.
As far as what the future holds for U.Va.'s quarterback position beyond this season, there's no shortage of uncertainty. Sims is a sophomore, while Rocco is a junior.
"I don't think you ever master anything, but I'm going to work as hard as I can to figure out all the little things about our offense," Rocco said. "It takes time. I worked hard last year and we had some success, and then this year has been more of a growing experience."
U.Va. also has David Watford, a Hampton High graduate who will be a sophomore next year after redshirting this season, promising freshman Greyson Lambert and freshman Matt Johns, both of whom are redshirting. U.Va. is slated to add incoming freshmen Corwin Cutler and Brendan Marshall – just to add to what could be a muddled quarterback picture.
"This year was based on what we thought was in the best interest of the team," London said. "Obviously, you look at the guys that you have and where they are in their year of eligibility remaining to try and set up a succession order that one can play, and then the next one behind him can play when their turn comes."