Oct. 2, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- After transferring from the University of Alabama, quarterback Phillip Sims was a UVa student for nearly two months before offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was allowed to work with him on the football field.
Their first session together was on Aug. 6, the day the Cavaliers opened training camp. The biggest change he's seen in Sims since then, Lazor said Tuesday, is "mainly just that he's learned the offense, and he's worked extremely hard to learn the language. Just the simple fact of being able to call the plays in the huddle, which at the beginning of training camp was difficult for him, as it is for a freshman coming in.
"So he's come a long way in having a mastery of what we're trying to do offensively. I think he's begun to play at a little quicker tempo, which is something that we had worked on early, and I think he's earning the confidence of his teammates."
Sims, a 6-2, 215-pound redshirt sophomore, took a blow to his right leg in UVa's most recent game, Saturday against Louisiana Tech. But he practiced with the first team Tuesday morning, and he's expected to make his first start for Virginia this weekend against Duke in Durham, N.C.
The Wahoos (2-3 overall, 0-1 ACC) take on the Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The last time someone other than Michael Rocco started at quarterback for UVa was Nov. 27, 2010, in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech. Rocco, a junior from Lynchburg, has been prone to mistakes in recent games, however, and Virginia head coach Mike London announced Monday night on his radio show that Sims, if healthy, will start against Duke.
Sims replaced Rocco late in the third quarter against Louisiana Tech, with Virginia trailing 41-24, and moments later teamed with senior tailback Perry Jones on a 34-yard pass play.
That drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt by Drew Jarrett, but Sims later threw two touchdown passes as UVa fought back from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Had he gotten the ball back in the final two minutes, Sims might have guided the offense to the winning touchdown, but a penalty on Virginia allowed Louisiana Tech to run out the clock.
"You can always wonder what might have happened, but we'll never know, and I think that's the hardest thing about it," Sims told reporters after the game. "Not the fact that you didn't get the chance, but the fact that you'll never know what might have happened."
Sims is a 2010 graduate of Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake. During the 2008 season, his teammates included Jones and wide receiver Tim Smith, who are now starters at UVa, and the Tigers rolled to the state Group AAA, Division 6 championship.
A four-year starter at Oscar Smith, Sims is the Virginia High School League's career leader in passing yards (10,725) and touchdown passes (119).
Sims signed in February 2010 with Alabama, where he redshirted that fall. In 2011, on a Crimson Tide team that won the national title, he backed up starter AJ McCarron. Sims appeared in eight games, completing 18 of 28 passes for 163 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions.
To get closer to his family, Sims transferred to UVa after the 2011-12 academic year, and in July the NCAA granted him a waiver that made him immediately eligible.
Sims intensified his efforts to learn a new offense and new terminology, a process that accelerated once he began working with Lazor in early August.
Two months later, Sims has excellent command of the playbook, Lazor said Tuesday. "Like I said after the [Louisiana Tech] game, I felt like every single time he's played, every time we've gone out to play, he's had more and more of it down, so I think it's great."
Sims completed 10 of 17 passes for 168 yards and two TDs against the Bulldogs. For the season -- he has appeared in every game -- Sims is 28-of-46 passing (60.9) percent for 340 yards and five TDs, with no interceptions.
That Sims has an exceptionally strong arm is clear to anyone who's seen him play. Moreover, "he's got a tremendous touch on the deep ball," said Anthony Poindexter, who was an All-American safety for Virginia and now coaches that position at his alma mater.
"He can throw it, man. With our secondary, when he's in there [during practice], they better get ready to [defend] the deep one, because he can put it in there ... You just gotta know, deep down in your mind, if you have a misstep with [the receivers] on the deep ball, he's going to be able to put it out there and put it on `em."
After the Louisiana Tech game, Lazor said that Sims has "got to learn to play on time. He's got to get the ball out of his hand fast."
Lazor elaborated on those comments Tuesday.
"It's the tempo of his feet and his decisions," he said. "The timing of the passing game is based on the tempo of the quarterback's footwork and how quickly he gets the ball out of his hands and how quickly he makes decisions. That's where, I think, we're trying to push Phillip to do that, and he's come a long way. It appears that wasn't a priority maybe in the past for him, like it is today here, but every time you move up a level, that occurs."
Playing at that tempo doesn't necessarily come naturally for a quarterback, even after he's become well-versed in an offense, Lazor said.
"You have to make an effort," Lazor said, "and sometimes guys just aren't used to playing at that speed. A lot of guys who are very strong-armed guys will have that issue, because in the past they've probably been able to wait to see people open and then throw the ball very hard to get it there. So sometimes the best quarterbacks are the ones that have to learn that."
At Duke, Sims will face an opponent that, out of the 120 teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, ranks 72nd in pass defense. The Blue Devils rank 34th in rushing defense and 42nd in total defense and are tied for 67th in scoring defense. Of the four teams Duke has beaten, however, only Wake Forest (3-2) has a winning record.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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