Quarterback competition still very much in the air

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Josh Jackson entered Virginia Tech’s spring football practice as the most experienced player at his position – and he has yet to play in a collegiate game.

Yet the quarterback from Ann Arbor, Michigan has been more than willing to help newcomers A.J. Bush and Hendon Hooker this spring, even though they all want the same thing.

But Jackson’s cordial disposition only extends so far. For example, he hasn’t watched his favorite movie – The Lion King – with his quarterback comrades.

“No, that’s just me,” Jackson said. “That’s my tradition.”

Jackson’s response drew laughs, as all three quarterbacks met with the media Tuesday afternoon in the Veatch Football Players Lounge. Rest assured, though, that the race for the starting quarterback role is not a laughing matter.

(For images from Tuesday's practice, please see the gallery below.)

Tech head coach Justin Fuente said that the trio pretty much gets an even number of reps over the course of a given practice, and that all three continue to progress nicely. He added that he feels no rush to name a starter.

In that sense, Fuente is following his philosophy from a season ago when he waited until less than two weeks before the season opener against Liberty to name Jerod Evans as the starting quarterback.

“I don’t ever set a timeframe to make a decision,” Fuente said. “There is only one deadline, and that’s by the time the first huddle trots out there in the first game. Whenever it happens, it’ll happen. I don’t know when that will be. We will continue to evaluate it.”

On paper, Jackson would appear to have a slight edge. He enrolled in January of last year and participated in spring practice, and he played well enough to get into the mix for the starting job along with Evans and Brenden Motley. He wound up taking a redshirt year, though Tech’s staff placed him on the travel roster to gain experience.

So he went through a spring practice and a fall with the program, and is participating in a second spring practice. Bush and Hooker just enrolled three months ago.

“I’d say it’s a big advantage, but I have to continue to learn,” Jackson said of enrolling early. “We keep putting in new stuff, so I have to continue to learn that. Going against Bud Foster’s defense every day is a good challenge, and that just gets me better and better.

“I have progressed well since the summer. I got to watch Jerod play, and that really helped me out. Being able to see college football live and be able to do his reads and be able to take it all in was a really good learning experience for me. Now in the spring, I have been trying to get better with my techniques and learning coverages.”

Bush and Hookier represent interesting stories. Bush spent two seasons at Nebraska, taking a redshirt year during one of those seasons. He left because he wanted playing time and transferred to Iowa Western, a junior college in Council Bluffs, Iowa, shortly before the start of 2016 fall semester.

His numbers in junior college weren’t the greatest, but part of that stemmed from the timing of his transfer. In the end, Tech’s staff saw enough talent in Bush to offer him a scholarship.

“I left [Nebraska] with two days before the first scrimmage at Iowa Western,” Bush said. “When I left, two days later, I was on the road to Colorado playing in a scrimmage. I don’t regret anything at all. The numbers weren’t great, but at the end of the day, I know what I am capable of. I know that, with the right talent, the right coaching and the right weapons around me, we can be special.”

The experience at Iowa Western humbled Bush. While there, he once asked for a pair of socks, and those who worked in the equipment area told him that he needed to go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy them. That served as an eye-opener for the young man, especially coming from Nebraska, where football players get treated like royalty.

Bush ultimately picked Tech over Texas A&M and Baylor, wanting to develop under Fuente in the same way that former Memphis and current Denver Bronco quarterback Paxton Lynch developed. He thinks that he is on that path.

“From day one, I came in and showed my leadership and competitiveness,” Bush said. “I made leadership council [a group of players who serve as team leaders]. I got the hard hat award [for his efforts in the offseason conditioning program]. My work ethic is there. They see that. I am a good person. I know how to lead. I’ve been around guys that know how to lead.

“It is nothing new to me. I know how to lead. I know how to work. I know what the coaches expect. At the end of the day, the foundation is there with me. I don’t want to say there are a lot of things that you have to teach me, but there are a lot of things that I know from experience that can help me in this competition.”

The 18-year-old Hooker is the youngest of the quarterback crew and one of the youngest players on Tech’s roster. He anticipated staying in high school and playing basketball this winter, but Evans’ decision to make himself available for the NFL Draft changed Hooker’s thinking, and he decided to come to Blacksburg early.

“It’s really a huge advantage,” Hooker said. “Once you get up here, you have to get used to something that you are going to be doing for the next four to five years, so getting up here early and adjusting before my other classmates has been pretty good for me – getting a playbook and getting used to the speed of the game. It’s been good for me.”

Hooker quickly got a feel rather for how difficult things are at the Division I level. He really struggled in the initial winter workouts, and then in a scrimmage this past Saturday, he took a lick from Terrell Edmunds.

“He introduced himself pretty well,” Hooker said.

Fuente said that all three possess similar skillsets, which enables coordinator Brad Cornelsen to run the same offense no matter who takes the reps. Yet each has different things to work upon to get better.

“We always give them feedback in terms of how they are playing and we continue to manipulate the reps,” Fuente said. “They are still basically even.”

The group will be on display for all of Hokie Nation in less than two weeks – 11 days, to be precise. Tech’s Spring Game takes place April 22 at Lane Stadium, with the kickoff slated for 2:30 p.m., and that game wraps up spring practice.

From the looks of things, though, it will not wrap up Tech’s quarterback competition. That race probably won’t be decided until late August.

For updates on Virginia Tech football, follow the Hokies on Twitter and on Instagram @vthokiefootball Instagram