Bill Hass on the ACC: Verica Draws Upon Resolve to Help Transform Himself, Cavaliers
Oct. 9, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Theories abound to explain the kind of transformation that Virginia's football team underwent last week.
But for quarterback Marc Verica, the reason was simple.
"Collectively, there was a tremendous amount of resolve, a no-quit attitude," he said. "We had just had enough. We were going to go out and show everyone that night that we were much better than we had been playing."
Verica's reference was to the Cavaliers' 31-0 shutout of Maryland last Saturday. Going into the game, Virginia was 1-3, had shown little on offense all season and was coming off a 31-3 loss to Duke. Maryland was 4-1 and had just defeated nationally ranked Clemson on the road.
So much for things going according to form.
Verica said the resolve started with coach Al Groh and his staff, was picked up by the team captains and had a "trickle-down effect" that influenced the rest of the team.
"Football is an emotional game, it's a passionate game, as well as a game of strategy and execution," Verica said. "We were really playing with a lot of passion and fire that night. We had a great week of practice and by focusing on everyone's individual performance, we were able to execute.
"When everyone buys into the system and shows that resolve to say `we're done losing, we're not going to let this happen again,' when you're able to do that as a team and come together like that, good things will happen."
Perhaps no individual reflected the transformation more than Verica, a third-year sophomore making just the third start of his career. At the end of the 2007 season, he was the No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, destined to bide his time before getting his opportunity.
Then, last year's starter, Jameel Sewell, was placed on academic suspension by the school. Peter Lalich started the first two games, but a few days before the Cavaliers' game at Connecticut he was dismissed from the team.
Suddenly, Verica was thrust into the fire as the starter in what he remembers as almost a "surreal" circumstance. Virginia absorbed a 45-10 loss, then fell to Duke the next game. Verica threw four interceptions in that one.
The season might have snowballed into something ugly for the team and for Verica. But it didn't. Drawing upon that resolve, and with running back Cedric Peerman, whom Verica called "the heart of the team," healthy enough to play, the Cavs built a 21-0 halftime lead. Verica threw two TD passes to Kevin Ogletree, including one of 51 yards, and ran for another score.
"The previous week was really tough," Verica said, "and I wanted to put it behind me and come out the next week and show everyone that I was capable of playing at a much higher level. That was my approach the whole week. I just wanted to play the next week to redeem myself.
"That's the great thing about football. Every week there's a chance for redemption. It doesn't matter what you did the last week. It was very uplifting, it was good for my confidence and the team's confidence and we're going to try and build off of it."
The first TD pass to Ogletree, Verica said, set the tone for the game. It was a play-action pass and Peerman sold the fake to draw the defense in. The offensive line, which had struggled to gel this season, gave Verica excellent protection.
"So all I really had to do was throw it up there," Verica said. "The defense got sucked up by the play fake and Kevin made a great catch and made a great effort to get those few extra yards and get into the end zone."
Verica hit 17 of 20 passes in the first half and finished the game 24 of 34 for 221 yards. The big question facing him and the team now is can the Cavaliers do it again, starting this week against East Carolina?
"We have to play with consistency if we want to win games," Verica said. "It can't just be a fluke there, a one-hit wonder. We have to come out every week with that intensity, that attention to detail and execution."
Groh has coached various levels of football for 42 years, so it's not surprising that he takes a cautious approach. He said from the start that this season would be a developmental one for his team, in which it would show signs of progression rather than burst from the gate. The same applies to his quarterback.
The staff had seen signs that Verica had "quarterback talent" in some good throws he made in the UConn and Duke games and in practice. But the coaches hadn't seen those throws on a consistent basis and they knew he couldn't play again the way he did against Duke.
So what was Groh's evaluation of Verica against Maryland?
`The way I would think of it is he's had a third game that was significantly different from the first two," Groh said. "Now, whether that means that strides have been made or that he had a better third game we'll find out more as a result of games four, five, six and seven.
"If they continue in that direction, it will be clear that we can go back to game three and say `yep, that was the game where a lot of strides were made.' If those strides don't continue or there's a slip back, then we'll say `yep, that was a one-week deal.' Obviously, it would be much to our advantage if it does become confirmed that it was the game in which he really started to break through."
Verica's performance left an impression on Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.
"I think he's pretty athletic, I think he's got a pretty quick release and I thought he played extremely well against us," Friedgen said.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Virginia caught Verica's eye when he watched college football on TV. He liked Groh's pro-style offense, particularly when Matt Schaub, now the starter for the NFL's Houston Texans, was running the show.
There is a common thread between Schaub and Verica. Schaub was once coached by Ernie Forchetti, who also coached Verica's father in high school. And when Verica played for a select team when he was a high school freshman, Forchetti was the quarterbacks coach.
"I wasn't an avid Virginia fan from when I was little," Verica said. "It was just a program that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and I saw myself wanting to play for a program like that. I attended a one-day football camp (at Virginia) and it went well. When they offered, I was more than ready to accept."
Groh's staff had studied Verica's high school tapes and concluded he was someone who could develop and help them down the road rather than immediately.
"Development usually isn't a short-term thing," Groh said. "It takes a while for that to happen. He's pretty much on track from what we had anticipated. We thought maybe by his fourth year that he would be the kind of guy that would have a chance to compete to be a starter. It happened a little bit sooner maybe than what the plan was. Marc's performance will tell us whether it was soon enough or a little too soon."
Verica was red-shirted his first season, then watched Sewell and Lalich take all the snaps in his second season. Even when a player knows what the plan for him is, it isn't easy to go through it. He tried to prepare for every game as if he were the starter and he never considered transferring. It helped to get a lot of support from his father.
Mark Verica (Mark is the father, Marc is the son) was once recruited by Notre Dame, which backed off after an injury in his senior year. He went on to star at Kutztown State, a small school in Pennsylvania, and got into a couple of NFL training camps.
"He has a lot of experience playing the game," Verica said of his dad. "He was always there to help me with anything and teach me things, whether it was mechanics or fundamentals or how to throw the ball, being a person, how to handle yourself. He's been the biggest influence on me by far."
His father, who comes to every game, encouraged Verica during the tough times.
"He told me to keep pushing and keep working and stay hungry and if I was doing the right things then eventually I would get a chance," Verica said.
In addition to his love for football, Mark Verica also passed a love for art to his son. Marc Verica said he used to draw all the time when he was younger but doesn't do it as much now. He also has a gift for music and he tries to find time to play guitar or piano whenever he can.
"Music is a big part of my life, a passion of mine when I'm not playing football," he said.
"There are days when there's some time there and I'll sit down and play for an hour or two. I play a lot of my own stuff, a great variety of things, not one particular genre. I just play what sounds good and it helps me relax.
"I've thought about (music as a career). If I was fortunate enough to have a career where I was doing something with it, (then) that would be great. But who knows? We'll see."
Groh is among those who have heard Verica play.
"For those who have told you that he's got a pretty good level of talent, they're being very factual with you," the coach said.
For right now, the music Verica wants to make is more wins for Virginia. He understands the task in front of him and what he needs to do on a consistent basis.
That's where drawing upon that resolve should help.
"I was ready to embrace it," he said of this chance. "I was thankful for the opportunity and am going to do everything in my power to remain in that position. I'm hungry, I'm not content and I'm still going to work hard like I was a backup."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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