There is a vastly different feel around the Virginia football team, one that has everything to do with its quarterbacks.
For the first time since his first spring in 2010, Mike London has offseason stability at the position.
"You’re telling me," he said recently.
London started ticking off the competitions he oversaw the past several seasons. In 2011, he left spring with a four-man race still wide open. In 2012, he thought Michael Rocco would be his starter until Phillip Sims transferred in after spring. In 2013, Rocco and Sims both transferred, leaving David Watford and Greyson Lambert to compete.
Then last spring, Watford, Lambert, and Matt Johns were a part of an open competition. You need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different quarterback competitions in Charlottesville over the past four springs.
No other ACC team has had more over the same span. But this year, everything is different. Lambert opened spring practice today as the No. 1 quarterback after winning the starting job last spring. Johns, who started three games last season when Lambert hurt his ankle, remains right behind.
"Everybody knows from Little League to college to the pros, it’s all quarterback driven, and a lot of times you learn it by earning your pelts and playing in games, and those two guys have done it," London said. "They’re walking around older, more mature and confident. It’s unbelievable when you have a guy walking around who feels like he can do it, and he’s the guy. We have two guys walking around like that. It raises their confidence level, but it raises the team and staff’s levels as well."
As it should. Virginia has struggled with the instability at quarterback, going to one bowl game in the past four years. But progress was made a season ago, not only with stability, but production at the position. Virginia barely missed a bowl game despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the country (not to mention having its starting quarterback on the shelf for three games).
Lambert still has plenty of room for improvement this spring, as he works on bringing his mistakes down (11 interceptions to just 10 touchdown passes) and his completion percentage up from 59 percent. But his numbers were a marked improvement over Watford, who threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions and completed 57 percent of his passes in 2013.
Cutting down on the interceptions must be a priority this spring. Since 2010, Virginia leads the league in total interceptions thrown, with 81. Improvement there should be expected with a second-year starter, who will know exactly what to expect when he steps onto the field for the opener against UCLA in September.
Flash back to a year ago in the opener against UCLA, and Lambert threw two pick-6s before getting benched.
"That experience is something that’s hard to mimic when you’re trying to find your quarterbacks in the spring; it’s hard to mimic when he’s taking his first couples snaps in the season," London said. "Thankfully, the man upstairs said, 'You’ve been through those hard times. Now, let’s see what you can do.'"
Another challenging schedule awaits. But at least this time around, London will have an experienced quarterback who is not looking over his shoulder every time he snaps the ball. How well Lambert does could end up determining how well UVa does. And that very well could end up determining London’s future with the team.
Offseason quarterback competitions at UVa under Mike London
2014: Greyson Lambert, Matt Johns, David Watford
2013: David Watford, Greyson Lambert
2012: Michael Rocco, Phillip Sims, David Watford
2011: Michael Rocco, Ross Metheny, Michael Strauss, David Watford
Bold denotes eventual starter