Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Between his classes on Tuesday, Virginia quarterback Marc Verica stopped by the music building on campus and played the piano -- better than one might assume a college quarterback could. It's Verica's way of relieving stress. He also taught himself how to play the guitar.
Next on Verica's list of things to master is Virginia's offense.
Now that former quarterback Peter Lalich has officially moved on, Verica is the "next man up."
Make that the third man up.
Prior to this season, Verica, a redshirt sophomore, had never taken a snap in a college game. He never had to. Jameel Sewell, the 2007 starter, was getting the job done before he got into an academic rut and had to miss this season. Lalich was named as Sewell's replacement, but brought a cloud of distraction to the program with his off-field incidents.
In what he described as a "surreal" experience, Verica was called into coach Al Groh's office prior to UVA's Sept. 13 game at Connecticut and told he would be the starter. Following a 45-10 loss to the Huskies, Lalich was dismissed from the team and Verica named the new starter.
Now he will lead the Cavaliers into Durham, N.C., on Saturday where they will try to earn their first ACC win of the season against an improved Duke team that has already surpassed last year's win total (1).
"I think I've handled it pretty well so far," Verica said. "I've always tried to prepare like I was the starter regardless if I was the starter going into the game or the backup because you really never know what's going to happen, whether it be an injury, or in this circumstance, an off-the-field issue. I prepared to be the starter, and was kind of thrust into that role the other night. Things didn't turnout the way we had hoped, but I think it will improve as these games go on and I get more experience."
Despite the outcome of the game, Verica earned a passing grade at UConn as he completed 22 of 30 passes for 158 yards and one interception. The 22 completions were the third most in school history by a quarterback making his first start, and the 158 passing yards were the most since 1999, when David Rivers threw for 228 yards in the only start of his career at UVA.
Verica said he's still working on the intangible aspects of being a quarterback, like assuming a leadership role in the huddle and at practices.
"I think I'm getting better at it," he said. "I don't think you can just step in there and be the team leader right away. I think it comes with experience and you have to prove yourself. My focus in practice has been to keep a high tempo and encourage guys when they make the right plays and get on someone if they're not doing the right thing, just bring a positive energy to the practice and I think the team has been responding well."
Verica caught Virginia's attention as a junior at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Pa., where he completed 112 of 222 passes for 1,545 yards and eight touchdowns.
One person who has been helping Verica is his father, Mark, who his son said was recruited as a quarterback by Notre Dame until he broke his leg and all recruiters backed off. Mark Verica wound up playing for Kutztown, but still managed to get an NFL tryout. He never made a roster, but Marc said his father's experience has helped him through this transition at UVA.
"He's been a big influence on me," Marc said, "not just on the field, but definitely off the field."
That's exactly what Verica's teammates need from him now. The Cavs are 1-2 heading into Durham and have the league's worst scoring offense, total offense, and rushing offense. They also rank last in pass efficiency.
"I was kind of always thinking I might get my shot, but now that it's here it's amazing," he said. "I'm really excited. It's unfortunate anytime you have to take on a starting role in a situation like, this but you've just got to be prepared. Our team has always preached the next man up mentality, and that's kind of how I approached it. I'm taking this pretty seriously."