Why Logan Thomas Should Not Be The Hokies' Starting Quarterback: Making The Case For Mark Leal

Peter Casey-US PRESSWIRE

First off, I'd like to offer my sincerest apologies to those who were made to wait to read this post, as it was somehow lost to mankind and did not post when it was intended to be posted. But, nearly two weeks later, and an effort to retype the entire post, it has now found your eyes. Rejoice! This post is of course in conjunction with (or originally intended to be) TrevorSGreene's post Should Logan Thomas Turn Pro?, but is not a true point-counterpoint, as both of us agree that Thomas should probably go pro now. Instead this is simply a post exploring the option of and making the pitch for Mark Leal as the Hokies starter at quarterback. But before you fly off the handle, accuse me of being THAT guy who throws any quarterback who isn't having success under the bus and irrationally grovels for a backup, somebody, anybody else to take the reigns of the team, read ahead, because this is not that post, and I am not that guy.

2012 feels a whole lot like a lost season for Hokie fans, and a big reason for that rests squarely (fairly or not) on their quarterback, Logan Thomas. That is unfortunately the nature of football: blame the coach, and when not applicable (those concerns have already been voiced ad nauseam) blame the quarterback, the leader and coach on the field. While he is not the only one to blame, and didn't even have some of the necessary pieces to have success (i.e. an average offensive line, receivers who gave consistent effort and a running game that wasn't almost completely dependent on himself), he didn't have the year any one of us envisioned and his regression from his 2011 form played a large part in the Hokies inability to maintain possession and put together productive drives.

Chief to Beamer/Stinespring's offensive strategy over the years is the ability to keep possession of the football, something the 2012 team failed abysmally at (finishing 50th in the nation during the regular season, though in the first half of the season, they were hovering around 100). What is surprising (and possibly telling) is that four of the Hokies losses came in games which they had more than 30 minutes of possession (or more than their opponents), something that Beamer teams rarely do. That's saying that the team had more possession and for whatever reason failed to do anything with it (capitalizing on their opportunities? Ahem...where have we heard that one before?). And chief to the reason the Hokies were unable to keep the football (aside from mortifyingly bad play-calling) was Logan Thomas' inaccuracy in the passing game, either failing to complete passes, or completing passes to the wrong team.

But one of the questions that we should really be asking is SHOULD Logan Thomas really be at fault, or catching as much of the blame as he is? Part of the reason Hokie fans identified with Thomas so much was that, regardless of his freakish physical stature and success in his first year as a starter in 2011, he exuded a quiet confidence, he was humble, even-keeled and a hard-worker. Those things didn't change in 2012. We're talking about the first guy to step up and say, "Yeah, that one was on me. I take all the blame" when something went wrong. Even in close wins he could be heard saying something to that effect if he thought he hurt the team. In fact, how can we fault a guy who didn't even want to play quarterback originally? He eliminated teams in the recruiting process planning to play him at the position, and committed to Virginia Tech mostly because of their insistence that they were going to use him at an H-back/hybrid WR/TE position (which by the way, didn't exist at Tech when he committed and hasn't existed since) and NOT at quarterback. He was angry when as a freshman he was told the Tech coaches were going back on their word, but he went along with it, and hasn't complained about it in the open once. How can you not root for a guy like that!? How can you not want to seem him succeed? That being said, he did not succeed in 2012, and for all his personal strengths and character qualities mentioned above, his confidence is fading (if not all gone). And that's a separate issue we'll address later. It's just worth noting that a lot of the blame and hatred for Thomas is misplaced.

As I said of the Thomas/Leal situation in the Gobbler Country Manifesto:

"Logan Thomas is still our quarterback:

Not surprisingly, after another sub-par performance by Logan Thomas, there was a lot of clamoring for him to be benched.

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Not since his first loss as a starter against Clemson a year ago have those sentiments been so vocal or so widespread. After all, Thomas did put up the greatest statistical season for a Virginia Tech quarterback in school history a year ago, and he entered the season as a dark horse Heisman candidate. He was projected by some draft experts as the #1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. 20 NFL scouts and GM's came to the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game to see HIM play, and it wasn't to see him at tight end. Logan Thomas' future is as a quarterback, and it is as the quarterback of the Virginia Tech Hokies.

I understand the frustration in the fan base regarding Thomas' performance, and even I myself have been completely stunned and baffled by it. It's not like Thomas' play is just a little below where it was a year ago. The difference is 180 degrees. He looks exactly like he did, as a converted tight end playing quarterback, through the first five games of last season. It feels to fans as if we were sold a bill of goods. Like Thomas' performance over the last nine games a season ago was not real, or if that Thomas were off somewhere playing that level of football in an alternate universe, while we're stuck watching the Thomas of old.

When something doesn't go right on offense, the quarterback is often the scapegoat, and that is part of the problem here. Thomas is the head of the offense and is therefore responsible for the ultimate success or failure of the unit, no matter the play-calling, blocking, running game, or the receivers' ability to get open and catch the ball. That thought process has conditioned us to see Thomas in an unfair light. Despite his knack for big-game comebacks or late drive magic, Thomas has been overburdened by our offense, and too much responsibility falls on him. I still think he is unflappable late, unfazed by the pressure of late game situations. But there is a gigantic difference between knowing you need to make a play and knowing you need to make EVERY play. That is what I think has caused the biggest drop-off in Thomas' play. That is why early in the season on the read-option, Thomas took seemingly every carry even if it wasn't the best decision. The offense needs to get back to a point where Thomas can sit back there and make plays, knowing that all he has to do is his part and the results will be favorable.

There is a possibility I'm wrong though. I would say it may even be as much as a 50/50 chance. After all, Thomas' poor play has occurred for long enough that we now have to wonder was what we saw down the stretch last year the real Thomas, or is what we saw at the beginning of last year and this year the real Thomas? Which is the aberration? In Thomas' 19 starts at quarterback, 10 have been average or worse and nine have been above average or spectacular. That's troubling. But then again, nine games, almost an entire season, is not a small sample size. Even if Thomas' run of great play were aberrant, the law of averages suggests that his play would return to Earth sooner than it did.

I have nothing against Mark Leal. I hope that in either 2013 (if Thomas recovers to put up dazzling statistics over the last eight or nine games of the season and forgoes his senior year to enter the draft) or in 2014 that he is ready to assume that starting role, and I will be nothing but happy for him. But there is a reason 20 scouts were there for Thomas and not for Leal on opening night, and it is not only a reflection of playing time. For as much NFL talent as this coaching staff has produced, I trust their evaluation of the two quarterbacks. After all, as talent evaluators, they are some of the best in the business, which is why the Hokies had the greatest positive differential between Rivals.com's recruiting rankings and actual rankings from 2002-2010. That is not to say that there is not a point where if Thomas were to continue to struggle, even more than he is now, the coaches should not at least give Leal some more reps. But for now, and until it is certifiably proven otherwise, Thomas gives the Hokies the best chance to win at quarterback."

Looking back at that now, a lot of the things I said are the same or similar to what I am saying now, but there are several distinct differences; namely, I am no longer endorsing Thomas over Leal for the purposes of this post. But also, because I believe I misrepresented the staff's ability to judge talent. Again, as I said in the quote above, there is no disputing the coaching staff's ability to recognize talent. They have continually been the best in the nation at getting under the radar kids with potential and developing them into NFL players. But two areas where they have struggled over the last couple of years and continue to do so are judging talent VERSUS talent (i.e. two players that they already have on their roster) and identifying which position a talented player should be playing. For example, failing to recognize that Danny Coale was the best punter on the 2011 team, that Alonzo Tweedy should have been playing on defense much more than he did in both 2011 and 2012 and that guys like J.C. Coleman and Martin Scales should have been getting more touches. But the problem also includes mishaps like playing Sean Glennon over Ike Whitaker (an immensely more talented player). Granted, at face value that was as much of a character issue as anything else (not aided by the fact that the Hokies had just rid themselves of another high profile quarterback with character issues). But the point is they played the less talented player of the two.

As I also said about this issue in the Manifesto:

"But I think the most telling example is how former Hokie Kam Chancellor was used at Virginia Tech. Chancellor started out at cornerback, moved to rover in 2007 and looked phenomenal. It appeared like Chancellor would be a more athletic version of his predecessor, Aaron Rouse. But in 2008, amid lack of depth in the secondary, the coaches moved Chancellor to free safety so as to have an experienced player in that role. At face value, the move made sense. The responsibilities of the free safety position dictate a need for an experienced player who can make calls, change coverages and decide where he has to provide help at a moment's notice during a given play. The free safety position is also usually referred to as the captain of the secondary, if not the captain of the defense. But the plan faltered because Chancellor was a very poor free safety. He was being played out of position and his play suffered. Many fans of his play in 2007 seemed to think he was doing a tremendous job in 2008 and 2009 for some reason, and gave him a pass, including his name among the greatest players ever to grace Tech's secondary. The reality however was a stark contrast from those who looked at Chancellor with their heart instead of their eyes. Chancellor blew more coverages at free safety than any Tech player I can remember since I began watching in the late 1990's (including the 2012 team). He was consistently among the worst defensive players on the field for the Hokies during his two years at free safety. Once drafted into the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks immediately moved him back to strong safety, where a mere two years later he is among the most-feared and talented strong safeties in the game. Why? Because he is at his natural position."

Even if putting Leal at quarterback would hypothetically give the Hokies the best chance to win and assuming Thomas would almost certainly be the best tight end on the roster, I am not advocating for Thomas to change positions and be inserted as a tight end. Instead, like Trevor suggested in his Should Logan Thomas Turn Pro piece, I am suggesting that Logan declare for the draft. Regardless if he does that or not though, this post is to suggest that Leal should be the quarterback next year. So here is where I stop ranting about everything else and finally do that (you're welcome).

First and foremost, Leal is a more accurate passer than Thomas. That may seem like a blanket statement that doesn't take into account many variables, but I'm about to list them to prove they've been accounted for.

1. Mark Leal's sample size doesn't compare with that of Logan Thomas. This is correct, and there is no getting around that. But I always felt don't penalize a guy for what he HAS done with the time he was given, penalize the guy who had the time but didn't do as much (or in this case, complete passes at a higher percentage). And if we are attempting to find an equitable comparison for Leal's lack of sample size, why not look at Thomas' 2010 numbers. Both were done in garbage time (minus one throw for Thomas in the Miami game), and Leal has a clear, decided advantage. In seven games in 2010, Thomas was 12-of-26 for 107 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a completion percentage of 46%. In five games between 2011-12, Leal by comparison was 13-of-19 for 179 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a completion percentage of 68%.

2. While Thomas had a tremendous 2011, completing 60% of his passes (when adding in the Danny Coale catch against Michigan that WAS A CATCH!), he slumped to 53% (unchanged by the addition of J.C. Coleman's catch on the sack that WAS NOT A SACK against Clemson), a number that often felt like much lower. Obviously there are some issues with the Hokies' passing skeleton (as the only passes regularly called are screens and deep routes), Thomas was continually errant, often overthrowing balls yards past a receiver or feet over their heads, something that may not have been remedied by different routes. Additionally, the unusually-high (at least according to football convention) number of screens should have enhanced his completion percentage to the point where it was acceptable.

3. Though the scrimmages aren't conclusive on this matter, keep in mind that Leal is often playing with a crop of lower talent level players and against a crop of higher talent level players.

So with what we know, Leal is currently the more accurate passer. And in the sports world, it's a what have you done for me lately proposition. So forget what Thomas might have done in the past if he's not the best current option. You may be asking, "Well accuracy is one component of what makes a good passer, but not the only one. So why are you emphasizing it this much?" You would be right in pointing that out, but I think the importance of how accurate a passer the Hokies have at quarterback right now is more-heavily weighed than normal. Without consistent completions for a team that is struggling so mightily to run, block and hold onto the football, the offense is only going to continue to get worse, especially if the no huddle and quick snapping continues (though it has been scaled back). That's where Leal's accuracy advantage comes into play, presumably keeping the Hokies on the field more often.

But, as you might argue, Logan Thomas does a lot for the Hokies in the running game, to which I would agree. I mean, there isn't another quarterback in the nation I'd rather have in a short-yardage situation, and he has certainly proved his worth in that department over the last two years. But, despite the constant Cam Newton and Vince Young comparisons, Thomas has proven he doesn't have the speed or agility of those two, and is probably more like everyone's other favorite LT comparison, Ben Roethlisberger, in that his ability to scramble is generally, purely to extend a play and make a pass. Yes he has run for 528 yards, leading the team in that department. But he has also taken 65 more carries than any other player, rushing for only 42 more yards than that player (J.C. Coleman). Even behind THIS offensive line, those statistics say running Coleman has been much more effective on a per carry basis. So while again, and I can't state this enough, Thomas' rushing has been vital to this offense, he is also theoretically in the way of a more productive runner(s).

So how does Mark Leal fit into this? Well, one, he hasn't taken nearly as many carries as Thomas in his time on the field. But that doesn't necessarily make Leal less of a rushing threat. It just means Leal requires much fewer designed run plays, something advantageous to Virginia Tech running backs and historically from a play-calling standpoint. He has speed, and has shown the ability to get outside of the pocket and even pick up necessary yardage in scrimmages and in practice. That is one of the things this Virginia Tech offense has been lacking: the extemporaneous playmaking quality that a scrambling quarterback (or at least a quicker quarterback) presents. Think about Tech's successful quarterbacks in the last decade or so. Got it? Good. Okay, now name one that hasn't been of the scrambling variety. Did you come up empty? Me too. Is it silly that such a qualifier could spell the difference between #THEMAYANSWERERIGHT offense and the best offensive teams under Stinespring (average offensive teams)? Maybe so, but I'm not one to question history.

While Leal might not be the kind of player who is going to fill that empty National Championship trophy case, he also might be a player whose set of strengths would prevent the Hokies from suffering another 6-6 season fate. It's undeniable he has less upside than Thomas, but he might be more consistent. And while Hokie fans may have grown tired of the maddening losses suffered in those 10-win seasons, there is not a thing any of us wouldn't do to get back there.

But unfortunately, in reality, we're unlikely to ever see a Mark Leal audition, or at least not until Thomas is gone via graduation or leaving early to the NFL. The staff has stayed loyal to him and tried to let him weather the storm, find his confidence again and recover to be the kind of player he showed he could be in 2011. You can't really fault the staff for wanting that to happen. But wanting something to happen and wanting it so bad that you fail to see that it will never happen again are two different things, and I'm afraid the Thomas situation is the latter. I'm rooting for him, but considering how far he's fallen, I don't foresee any scenario in which he is able to return to the level he displayed down the stretch in 2011. And given that unlikelihood, the Tech coaching staff should prepare accordingly: A.K.A. get Leal in the game, even if for a few plays per game. In fact, it is something they should have been doing all along, especially if they thought there was a chance Thomas would be leaving early to pursue his NFL fortunes (almost a certainty if he had maintained his draft stock from the beginning of the year). After all, failing to prepare players like Grant Noel, Bryan Randall, Sean Glennon and Logan Thomas (particularly Thomas), especially in blowout games in the season or seasons prior to their taking over as a starter has been a recurring theme at Tech, and one of the reasons Tech quarterbacks have THAT game early in their career as a starter, usually coinciding with a costly Tech loss. And lest the coaching staff forget, the first game of next season for the Hokies is the Alabama Crimson Tide, in a pro-'Bama environment.

So it's unlikely that we'll see Leal in a bowl game situation and unacceptable that he hasn't been seeing more action the last couple of weeks given Thomas' struggles. This is even more upsetting considering for much of that time period, there wasn't much to lose. I mean, yeah, the Hokies barely got into a bowl by the skin of their teeth, but the only way that would be different with Leal under center is assuming that he would somehow play worse than Thomas did during that period, something I'm not entirely sure is possible. It's unfortunate, but it's something that we have come to expect from the Tech coaches...which is why they're on the hook for all of this, and why in the next few days, I'm going to give you the opportunity to sound off about. Just you wait! So there's my pitch for Mark Leal. Love it? Hate it? Feel differently? Or the same? Let me know in the comments section, and continue coming back to Gobbler Country, champion of the 3,500+ word article variety and home for your Virginia Tech sports news, rants, opinions and analysis.

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