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Virginia football preview: The evolution of David Watford

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Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2013 6:00 am | Updated: 11:05 am, Sun Aug 25, 2013.

David Watford was last seen participating in a college football game on Nov. 26, 2011. He threw three passes — none completed. Han ran once for one yard.

The then-true freshman was in for mop-up duty of Virginia Tech’s 38-0 dusting of Virginia to close a disappointing afternoon in Charlottesville.

In six days, Watford is scheduled to reappear — as the starter, no less — when BYU comes to Scott Stadium to begin the 2013 UVa football season.

Over the past 21 months, Watford has gone from second-team to the scout team to first-team. He’s worn a headset and was fitted for a redshirt. He’s dealt with a quarterback addition and a pair of subtractions. He’s heard position-change rumors. He’s trained with the Navy SEALs. He’s read Jay Bilas.

But David Watford has remained David Watford, the nice — almost too nice — mild-mannered signal caller from Hampton.

He’s just happened to develop a few qualities along the way.

Hampton gentleman

Have you ever seen David Watford get mad?

You could almost hear Mike Smith scratching his head through the telephone, searching for a memory to come to a mind that’s full of them after 41 years on the Hampton High School sideline. The legendary coach was stumped on this one.

“I can honestly say I don’t think I ever have,” Smith said. “There were times I wish he had. There were times when he should have got mad, but he’s too nice a guy.”

Smith has won a state-record 437 games. With Watford as the quarterback, the Crabbers were good for 29 of those victories in three years.

Watford, a three-star recruit, enrolled at Virginia in January 2011. By summer 2012, he had every reason to throw Mr. Nice Guy out the dorm room window.

Watford was coming off his freshman season, a campaign in which he appeared in 10 games, splitting time with starter Michael Rocco, when ballyhooed Phillip Sims was granted his NCAA waiver and could play right away after transferring to UVa from Alabama. 

The date was July 11. A crowded preseason camp was around the corner.

The QB room was about to headlined by the incumbent starter, a former high school All-American and Watford.

“I was ready to compete,” Watford said. “I knew Phil was a great quarterback. He’s a highly recruited guy. He left Alabama because they weren’t playing him. I knew he was good and I knew he wasn’t going to be a slouch, so I was ready to compete, learn from Phil, learn what made him so good. I was just ready.”

But July gave way to August and the practice pecking order became obvious. The battle to start the ’12 opener against Richmond featured two candidates. Watford was the clear No. 3.

What would he do? Move to receiver?

“I told Coach [Mike] London that if that was the only possible way that I would ever get on the field, then I would switch positions,” said Watford, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder who ran for 795 yards during his senior season at Hampton. “But I knew I could play quarterback.”

“I’ll tell you right now, he would not have changed positions and stayed at Virginia,” Smith said. “I know that for a fact. That was the thing that he made clear before he went there. He was going as a quarterback.”

On Aug. 26, the day before the decision would go public, London met with Rocco, Sims and Watford and delivered the predictable news. Rocco would start the Richmond game, but Sims could see time. As for Watford, he’d be redshirted.

“At first, he was disappointed,” London recalled, “but like any great team leader or any player that’s a selfless player, he said, ‘You know what? If this is what’s best for the team, Coach, I’ll do it.’”

There was no outburst. No punching a wall. No transfer talk. Watford’s polite demeanor remained.

“I could not tell that he was disappointed,” said fellow quarterback Greyson Lambert, who roomed with Watford during last year’s camp.

Smith saw the situation as a blessing in disguise.

“Coach London and I talked about it,” Smith said. “I thought it was the best thing in the world for him. If I would have had my way about it, I would have redshirted him his first year, but it is what it is.

“I think it was certainly the correct move. I told David the same thing. David had great leadership skills and David was tough, but he needed to get tougher and become a better leader.”

A leader is born

David Watford couldn’t be Michael Rocco or Phillip Sims in 2012, so he became Stephen Morris and Bryn Renner instead.

The Virginia scout team had it star quarterback.

“Watford, he definitely tried to give the defense the best look he could give them,” said Jay Whitmire, a fellow reserve offensive player last season. “He definitely was real focused during those scout periods.”

“I treated practice like a game,” Watford said. “Preparing for my game —different practice situations, blitzes.”

And playing the role of different Cavalier opponents. Acting as Miami’s Morris or North Carolina’s Renner, Watford would be in scout team heaven.

“Any spread offense that we played, I was just like, ‘Yes, thank you,’” Watford said. “I was just back there doing whatever.”

His work ethic began to grow on teammates.

“There’s a point where he could have wavered, he could have decided to go the opposite way — look to transfer — but he’s a tough guy,” said safety Anthony Harris. “He stuck it out. He went in the weight room each week with a positive attitude, great spirit. He worked hard in the weight room and watched film. ... A lot of guys respected him for that.”

During a season in which he never touched the field in a game, Watford, through adversity, managed to develop those captain-like qualities Smith wished for him.

“I just didn’t want the guys to see me down,” Watford said. “Even though I didn’t see myself as a leader last year, I just knew that if I was going to be in the role of leadership, then they can’t see me down.

“They can’t see me like swaying back and forth — having high days, having low days. I have to be consistent, I have to be steady throughout what I do. I just tried hard to train myself to have the same face every day.”

A week after the 2012 season ended, Rocco was granted his release to transfer. In the early months of 2013, Watford began to emerge as Virginia’s new quarterback.

“We had the Navy SEALs come in and they spent some time with our program,” London said. “They didn’t know anybody, but very soon after they were here, they recognized there were certain guys that were leaders that stood out on this team and David was one of them.

“We have captains, but when we voted for our leadership council, I got votes from everybody on the team.

“The top vote-getter was David Watford.”

Said tight end Jake McGee: “When David says something, guys stop talking and listen to him. He truly has earned it to be considered a leader of this football team.”

After being No. 3 in the fall, Watford found himself No. 1 on the depth chart entering spring. He ended there, too.

On May 31, Sims was out at Virginia for academic issues.

Watford was the last of the 2012 trio left standing. It just made him hungrier.

Would he be named the starter this fall? Likely, but it didn’t stop Watford from continuing to search for an edge.

In early June, he checked out Jay Bilas’ "Toughness", a 272-pager penned by the ESPN college basketball analyst dedicated to finding the true meaning of the term.

An except from the book reads: “To ‘lock in’ to toughness, to the principles and values discussed in this book, I believe that you have to commit to honestly and objectively assessing just how tough you are right now, where you have met your standard and where you have fallen short of it, and you have to address what you need to do, and are willing to do, to consistently meet that standard of toughness.”

Watford took serious note and applied it elsewhere.

“He said toughness, you’re not born with toughness,” Watford said. “I don’t think you’re born with leadership, either. You can learn how to be a leader. I feel like that’s what I learned.

“I was a leader in high school on my football team, but I had to learn to be a leader. I wasn’t a leader when I first got there. I had to learn how to be a leader last year. That season when I didn’t play, my redshirt year, I feel like that really helped me develop and that really showed me who I was and what I was really doing this for and what my motivation was.”

Still to come

Mike Smith has hit the jackpot with talented quarterbacks during his four decades at Hampton.

From Eric Hunter (Purdue) to Ronald Curry (North Carolina) to Marques Hagans (Virginia) to Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech), the Crabbers have been machine-like in pumping out Division I starting arms.

Saturday, David Watford joins the exclusive club.

“I’d put David up there in the mix,” Smith said. “At the level of high school, he wasn’t Ronald and he wasn’t Marcus and probably not Tyrod. But he wasn’t at the bottom of the deck now.”

At UVa, he fell down there only to rise and meet a steep challenge.

It’s a been a blur of a 21 month-ride, but Watford, a redshirt sophomore, battled through to reach this point.

The rest should be easy.

“I think David’s best years as a quarterback are still in front of him,” Smith said. “I really do.”

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