Oct. 5, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Whether fifth-year senior Sean Renfree starts at quarterback against Virginia will be a game-time decision, according to Duke coach David Cutcliffe. Renfree injured his throwing elbow last weekend in the second half of Duke's win over Wake Forest.
There is no such mystery with the Cavaliers. At 3 p.m. Saturday, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims is expected to make his first start as a college quarterback.
Sims, the No. 2 QB on the Alabama team that won the national championship last season, transferred to UVa after the 2011-12 school year and, because of a family crisis, was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.
For the first five games, Sims backed up junior Michael Rocco, who started all 13 games for the Wahoos in 2011. But Rocco has been prone to mistakes this fall, and after he threw three interceptions last week against Louisiana Tech at Scott Stadium, Sims took over in the second half and threw two touchdown passes as Virginia tried to overcome a 20-point deficit.
The Cavaliers never caught the Bulldogs, but Sims impressed the coaching staff with his poise and his arm. The 6-2, 215-pound right-hander practiced with the first-team offense all week and now, against Coastal Division rival Duke (4-1 overall, 1-0 ACC), will try to help UVa (2-3, 0-1) end its three-game losing streak.
"It's not really something that you can sit there and just think about too much," Sims said Wednesday when asked about his new role. "You got a job to do. Now people are asking more of you, and you've got to deliver on that."
At Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Sims shattered Virginia High School League records and became one of the nation's most heralded college prospects. He's probably aware that a portion of the UVa fan base sees him as the program's savior, but Sims says he feels no added pressure heading into his first start.
"Not at all," he said. "I'm just being asked to go out and do the things that I'm capable of doing. Nobody's asking me to go out and be Superman or be Michael Vick or Peyton Manning or anybody like that. I'm just being asked to be Phillip Sims and go out there and do the things that I've been taught to do within this offense and just try to help my team win, and just move the ball offensively."
Sims has completed 28 of 46 passes (60.9 percent) for 340 yards and five touchdowns this season. He hasn't been intercepted.
Against Louisiana Tech, he was 10-for-17 passing for 166 yards and two TDs. His completions included gains of 47, 34, 24 and 23 yards. His powerful arm helped Sims set VHSL career records in passing yards (10,725) and touchdown passes (119) in his four years on the Oscar Smith varsity.
"I like to give guys the opportunity to make plays," Sims said, "and throwing the football down the field, it's just something I feel comfortable doing. I think I have the arm strength and the accuracy to make those throws, so I just feel I might as well capitalize on that. I'm not just going to waste the talent I've been blessed with.
"It's just something that I've always done. It's not something that anybody's tried to stop me from doing, so I assume that it's pretty much something that the coaches are comfortable with me doing."
London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor like the threat that Sims' big-play ability poses to defenses. They also like the way he's blended in with his new teammates at UVa.
Given his credentials, Sims could have been cocky when he arrived in Charlottesville. That wasn't the case. Coming from Alabama, Sims "just brought a confidence and a poise about him that people took notice of," London said. "He had to get used to the way we do things, the way we lift and just the process of learning the offense and everything. It's a quiet confidence that he possesses."
Still, Sims said, "I just wanted to fit in with the rest of the guys, as far as me just being a normal teammate.
"I'm nobody special. I just came here to help this team be successful. I didn't come in to be some big-name guy. I'm just one of the guys here, and it's something that I felt that my teammates helped me with. Nobody asked me to come in and be some superstar or be anything like that. Everybody just wanted me to feel comfortable here and just learn how things are done here and just come along slowly.
"This is a great group of guys here. I didn't really feel any extra pressure. I just wanted to fit in, and the guys helped me and they allowed me to do that."
Sims says he's becoming increasingly comfortable with Lazor's playbook. "I think I've come a long way since the first week of training camp, but I do have improvements that I still need to make, and I do have more stuff that I need to learn within the offense. Each and every day I talk to Coach Lazor about what I need to improve on, the things he expects from me, just so I can be able to perform to my highest ability in this offense."
Turnovers and penalties have negated many of the positive plays UVa's offense has made in recent games. Against TCU on Sept. 22, for example, the `Hoos turned the ball over four times. Against Louisiana Tech, Virginia totaled 625 yards but had three turnovers. As a team, UVa was called for 16 penalties against the Bulldogs.
"We gained a lot of yards and scored some points," Lazor said after the game, "but the key is the self-inflicted wounds ... I don't know how many of those penalties were on offense, but it seemed like a lot, and we had some drives that were clearly impacted by those penalties."
Smith is likely to miss the Duke game with a lower-leg injury, but otherwise the `Hoos should have a full complement of players on offense.
Among those who may soon assume a more prominent role is Ross Burbank. After the Louisiana Tech game, the redshirt freshman from Virginia Beach was moved from center, where he was backing up junior Luke Bowanko, to right guard, where Burbank is challenging junior Sean Cascarano for the starting job.
"Ross is a young kid," senior offensive tackle Oday Aboushi said, "but he's real strong."
The Cavaliers' faith in each other is strong, too. Of the questions London and his players fielded from media members this week, many concerned the team's confidence level. The `Hoos are convinced that a breakthrough -- a game where they don't beat themselves -- is imminent.
"We've just got to go out and execute," Sims said. "I feel we have very good talent on this team. We've just got to put it together, and we've just got to be accountable to each other and make the plays that we all know we're capable of making."
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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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