Rising through the ranks

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October 28, 2011

2:04 AM

When Mike Graham arrived at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville for the Tribe’s 2011 season opener, the mammoth stadium was familiar territory. He had been watching University of Virginia football games from the hill behind the north end zone since he was eight years old.

It was, however, the first time he had walked onto the field from the visitors’ locker room, pitted against the program he supported in his childhood. As the third-string quarterback on the depth chart, the redshirt sophomore wasn’t sure whether he would see any playing time.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Graham said. “I was just ready if they needed me.”

As it turned out, his number would be called after all. Facing an insurmountable 40-point deficit, head coach Jimmye Laycock brought Graham in during the second half to prevent a shutout. Graham led a 63-yard field goal drive for the only Tribe points of the day.

While his late game drive was a minor accomplishment, Graham’s performance in front of 50,000 people including family and friends signified a major step in his measured climb from obscurity.

Graham hails from Albermarle County, just outside of the Charlottesville city limits. He picked up football at a young age, experimenting briefly with positions such as tight end and defensive end, but always preferring quarterback. In his first year calling plays for Monticello High School, the then-junior led a talented team to the 2007 State Championship.

“I had two first-team all-state receivers on my team,” Graham said. “I never had to really make reads; I kind of just knew my guy would be open because we were so good.”

While he explored the prospect of playing several other local schools including U.Va., Richmond and Duke, he was recruited most heavily by Tribe quarterbacks coach David Corley. While Graham was not offered a scholarship, the College assured him a spot on the team.

“[Corley] said, ‘We want you to be our recruited walk-on quarterback,’” Graham said. “‘We don’t have a scholarship for you right now but you can earn one.’”

Graham was skeptical of playing at a school with such an academic reputation.

“I always thought of [William and Mary] as a genius school,” Graham said. “You always just heard about how smart you had to be to get in.”

Nevertheless, impressed by the state-of-the-art Jimmye Laycock Center, Graham committed to the College. While he was forced to adjust to a different offense and a quicker pace of play, he was named scout team player of the year as a freshman.

Starting quarterback RJ Archer, a senior at the time, had come from the rival high school in Albemarle. Archer offered Graham advice on how to get the most out of his scout team experience.

“He just told me to get better and have fun,” Graham said. “So that’s what I did.”

Last year, Graham redshirted and watched from a distance the circus of injuries and depth chart changes between quarterbacks Mike Callahan ’10, senior Mike Paulus and junior Brent Caprio.

“It was kind of frustrating just because I knew if I was given a shot I could have been in that mix too,” Graham said. “But I learned that anything could happen, so you have to be prepared to go in even if you are the fourth-string quarterback.”

This valuable lesson has carried over to this season. When the offense sputtered under Paulus early in the year, Caprio and Graham began dueling for the starting spot. Against New Haven, Graham received playing time game and was able to grind out a narrow victory for the Tribe.

The game also included Graham’s first career touchdown pass, a crucial 11-yard strike to tailback Jonathan Grimes on third and goal.

“The play before that I had caused a delay of game penalty … so I was upset about that and knew we had a chance to score,” Graham said. “When we watched the film on Monday I was so excited I jumped out of my chair and Coach Laycock had to calm me down.”

Excitement aside, the performance earned Graham a definitive position at the top of the depth chart going into the James Madison game. In his first career start, he admits to having been nervous on the first couple of plays, but says he settled in quickly.

Graham’s favorite game so far came the next week against Villanova, when he battled illness during the week to put in a solid performance against the Wildcats for his first career win as a starter.

When illness struck again the following week, he was forced to sit on the bench in two important conference games against Delaware and New Hampshire. When he returned to the field on Homecoming against Towson he didn’t seem to skip a beat, completing 19 of 26 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. His two interceptions, though, were costly in the Tribe’s 38-27 loss to the Tigers.

While the ultimate goal is to take home the 2011 National Championship, he understands there is still a lot he has to learn, specifically about making correct reads quickly.

“I’d like to read defenses better and be quicker with my reads,” Graham said. “There’s always room for improvement; it’s something that might come with time.”

Experience on the field is a luxury that Graham has not enjoyed to this point. On the scout team as a freshman and coming into camp as the third-string quarterback this year, most of his reps have been mental rather than physical.

“Probably the hardest thing was just not getting the reps,” Graham said. “They say take mental reps, but mental reps only can do so much. I knew what I was doing; I just hadn’t done it all that often.”

While experience must come with time, the sophomore already has a strong sense of how to be a leader on the team. While he doesn’t consider himself especially vocal, he understands when to speak up.

“You have to lead with confidence but you don’t want to be that guy that everyone hates,” he said. “You have to tell someone when they’re doing something wrong to fix it and they can’t get mad at you for that.”

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