Josh Jackson Jr. is out. Look, no one is going to get rewarded with candy for figuring out that the loss of JJ is a significant short term blow to the Hokies. There was little doubt after the Spring practice session that Jackson was going to be the starter, and Coach Fuente made that clear, even before the Fall practice really got underway. That means we paid only light attention to the supporting cast, until now. It’s time to break the glass on the emergency box, and read the instructions.
It’s been quite a while since we went over the roster information on the quarterbacks. Now, the information will need a bit of updating for your records. Ryan Willis has been designated the starting quarterback for the Duke game. It’s important to remember that the overall quarterback competition was for the #2 and #3 spots on the roster. Both Willis and redshirt freshman, Hendon Hooker will be counted on for what is, realistically, the remainder of the 2018 season.
Ryan Willis - Junior Overland Park, Kansas
Height: 6’ 4” Weight: 225 +/-
Not many people know this, but Willis is not only a transfer, but he took a chance and accepted an invitation by the Coach Shibest recruiting channel, to leave his scholarship behind at Kansas to travel halfway across the country to walk on with the Hokies.
Willis has 10 games of starting experience at Kansas. The Jayhawks poor record was more a function of why he left than his play. Because he transferred, he sat out last year, attended classes, and practiced with the team. His reps in Spring practice were solid, and he looked sharp and accurate while running the offense during the William and Mary game. After Jackson was helped off the field at ODU, Willis completed 50% of his passes, 9 for 131 yards and a touchdown. He also ripped off a very nice read/option run that short of a nudge out of bounds almost resulted in a Hokie touchdown.
Willis is four inches taller, (maybe a tad more, really) than Jackson so he sees over the line better. He has a good pocket presence at the snap, moves smoothly with the ball and makes quick thorough reads both for the Read/Option and RPO packages. This is critical in the Fuente offense. A quarterback needs to be decisive and understand exactly what he wants to do with the ball in a given situation. Willis, so far, has shown that he can read his progressions quickly in the pass, and makes the right decision off of the key read in the R/O or RPO. His ability to make that consistent will be heavily challenged on Game Day, Saturday evening.
There is no real arguing with the fact that Ryan Willis has a better arm and passing technique, overall, than JJ. He sees what he wants to do, looks downfield in the intermediate ranges (Tight Ends Coach Cornelsen, TIGHT ENDS PLEASE!!!) and has the arm to deliver strikes on a rope at all ranges. We’ll see about touch passes, he hasn’t gotten much of a chance to really do that, though I wish that became less of a factor in our offense. Willis is experienced. So, far, he’s been cool and crisp with his execution and field leadership. Duke is an unfortunately high level of test to have to walk into, but that’s life.
I don’t expect a drop off in production. We might actually see some changes in play calling patterns, and game plan execution with Willis at the helm. It doesn’t make it better or worse than JJ, but it will probably be slightly different.
Hendon Hooker - redshirt Freshman Greensboro, NC
Height: 6’ 4” Weight: 225ish
There isn’t a ton of doubt that looking at Hendon Hooker during warmups in 2018 resulted in a recheck of the squad and the jersey number because 2017 Hendon Hooker was sort of skinny for his height at what was a reported 215 or so. I doubt that because what I saw last season was someone who weighed in at 200-205. He was thin. He was also FAST. Willis is actually pretty quick, but Hooker has an afterburner. He managed to get a chance to demonstrate it during the William and Mary game, much to every Hokie’s delight. He just ran around the end, read some really nice blocks and then jammed it into a gear that few folks have.
Hooker also looks like he’s getting comfortable reading his keys on R/O plays, and he can certainly “Sell the Cheeto” much more convincingly than JJ could. We haven’t really gotten the opportunity to see his passing chops beyond the practice sessions, but unchallenged he throws a nice ball with reasonable accuracy. I cannot say more until we see him on the field.
I expect that a Hooker lead offense will be mostly a spread out ground game using the fact that he is a serious threat to break something on every down to our advantage.
There was this odd sort of balance to the QB corps in the Fall starting depth chart for the Hokies. The kind of game that you would call for Josh Jackson was not really the game that you’d call using the talents of Ryan Willis, and certainly neither of them would be in the same playbook series as Hendon Hooker.
Jackson was more appropriately deployed in a near traditional pocket passer shotgun QB role. Sort of a West Coast type of quarterback. Willis is more of the the traditional RPO QB. He can keep it and get good yards, read the crash then decide to hand it off quickly with correct decision making, and he has the arm to make the throws downfield, especially at the missing intermediate ranges that make first downs underneath the zone. Hooker is a more traditional Read/Option Quarterback where he can dominate with his feet and the feet of his runners, where the passing game is balance and support versus the main method of attack.
The challenge between Ryan Willis and Hendon Hooker will be in the play calling booth, and the game plans. Both bring solid but different talent envelopes to the table. Frankly, it’s time for Fuente and Cornelsen to toss out the “box” and start looking at innovative ways to use both of these talents, and not by some dual QB system swithcing in and out, but maybe getting Hooker on the field with Willis and seeing if they can mess with some defensive minds.
Either way, the Hokies have been presented a challenge that they might have anticipated, but nobody wants to become a reality. It’s time for both Ryan Willis and Hendon Hooker to step up, be unselfish, and make everyone in Hokie Nation pleasantly surprised.
Again, Willis gets the start at Duke, but I don’t think that Hooker will be sporting a clean uni in every game. It’s going to take every ounce of imagination to win each game.