With Josh Jackson sidelined for essentially the rest of the season with a broken fibula, the reins to the offense have been turned over to backup quarterback Ryan Willis. The former transfer entered the game against ODU in the fourth quarter and led the Hokies on a single scoring drive to tie the game up at 35 apiece, and came up short on another potential game-tying drive once ODU scored again.
Willis finished the game completing nine of his eighteen attempts, totaling 131 yards through the air with a touchdown, and added an extra 30 yards on the ground on just four carries. Although Willis only really got two meaningful drives to show what he could do, there are a few takeaways we can make about Willis and the quarterback situation moving forward.
Let’s start with the good. Willis’ athleticism might be more beneficial to the offense than Josh Jackson. JJ is good athlete in his own right, but Willis’ size, speed, and fluidity with how he moves can help both the zone read and the passing game. In addition, I thought when Willis was able to set his feet the ball came out with velocity and accuracy.
Willis’ movement skills keeps the zone read, one of the essentials in Fuente’s playbook, open for business. Fuente called three zone read-type plays while Willis was in the game, and he made the correct read all three times. Here, the defensive end collapses on McClease and Willis pulls the ball with Keene, the F-tight end, leading the way so he can get to the edge.
Even though he is a 6’4”, 225-pound quarterback, Willis looks spry racing down the sideline. I’d argue that he has better straight-line speed than Jackson with a distinct size advantage. Part of that is the lesser athletic talent Old Dominion possesses compared to other Power 5 schools. Willis has the Kaepernick-eque quality of long strides that gobble up ground quicker than it seems, which ruins defenders’ pursuit angles and can lead to big gains like this 23-yarder.
Willis also used his mobility to manipulate the pocket. On a critical 3rd-and-12, Old Dominion decides to go for a momentum killing stop and sends pressure, dropping just five in coverage. Given the look ODU gives him, Willis knows pre-snap that he’s going to have at least one defender in his face on this play.
Old Dominion lines up with both linebackers covering up each A gap in a mug pressure scheme. The late Jim Johnson gave NFL offenses fits with this look, since interior pressure can be so difficult to deal with for quarterbacks and it gives the defense the ability to disguise where they send pressure. With twelve yards until the first down marker, Willis has to be patient in order for someone to open up since the Monarchs go with a man cover scheme on the back end of the blitz.
The offensive line and Peoples do a nice job picking up the blitz, allowing Willis to move up in the pocket to evade an oncoming rusher. Willis then slides to the right to buy an extra nanosecond for him to see Damon Hazelton uncover. Willis shows composure to calmly flip the ball to the wide out and allow him to pick up the first down. This play may not be a textbook example of feeling pressure and the pocket but Willis shows enough here to be an encouraging sign for the future in my eyes.
A quarterback with good feet is useless without a good arm, and Willis made some accurate throws with zip on them on Saturday. He also showed the ability to throw with great ball placement to allow receivers to protect themselves or gain YAC.
Willis’ first throw after the defense surrendered it’s fifth touchdown of the game was a great example of this. Fuente calls a hard play-action pass to move the linebackers out of their underneath zones, which opens up a square in for Damon Hazelton on the outside.
Willis does a nice job holding the mesh point during the play-action, while keeping his eyes glued to the LB’s movements. Once he sees the window open up, he fires one to Hazelton. However, the single high safety for ODU sees this as well, and he pulls the trigger and tries to make a play on the ball. To protect Hazelton, Willis throws this one low where either the receiver gets it, or no one does.
Hazelton unfortunately drops this pass but it’s certainly not a bad play by Willis. Fuente sees that the concept works and calls it again, and this time Willis hits Hazelton right in stride and allows the speedy receiver to pick up 15 yards after the catch. Receivers appreciate when they don’t have to break stride or disrupt their rhythm in order to simply catch the football. It allows them to create explosive plays which helps the offense as a whole.
Another example of great ball placement is on this pop pass to Dalton Keene (something they need to run more). It’s the same type of play, where Willis tries to force the LB’s to come downhill to play the run before throwing the ball behind them. The redshirt-junior sets his feet and delivers the ball right in Keene’s breadbasket.
Keene immediately takes the hit, which is why the ball needed to be in the exact right spot. If it wasn’t there, the hit could have resulted in an incomplete pass. It’s a minute detail to an albeit wide open receiver, but every inch matters (especially against ODU, apparently). Willis was not leaving yards on the field with his completions which allows the offense to move down the field more efficiently.
Notice that on each of these throws Willis’ mechanics are sound. He doesn’t get happy feet in the pocket, throws with a good base, and gets good arm extension before following through. His delivery is quick and he has proper torque throughout his body to generate velocity on his throw, which results in accuracy.
However, if Willis’ mechanics were off, the entire throw was off and the play just seemed a little unnatural.
For example, on the cusp of the high red zone, Fuente calls for a fake screen wheel to try to catch ODU’s defensive backs cheating upwards. However, there is no “gotcha” moment here as ODU’s cornerbacks do not bite the cheese.
I don’t know how exactly Fuente teaches this play to the quarterbacks since Jackson also kind of runs this play the same way. But with traditional mechanics, Willis’ throwing base is awkward as his back leg is too far underneath him instead of shoulder width apart which causes him to lean backwards. Willis can’t generate enough velocity on the throw because he can’t push off his back leg, causing it to be significantly underthrown. That’s the bad with Willis. He will be inaccurate if he doesn’t get his feet set or if he doesn’t feel comfortable on the move. But most quarterbacks (including Josh Jackson) are so that really isn’t too big a concern for Fuente.
What is more concerning for Fuente is Willis’ decision making and I also question his ability to go through his reads. To be fair, the mental part of the game is difficult especially for a quarterback entering the game so late without many in-game reps so I won’t be harsh on Willis for this week (even though, again, it was against ODU’s defense).
On the fake screen wheel above, Willis is locked in on throwing the ball to Savoy, which may have been what Fuente wanted him to do. However, Savoy is not open, and there really isn’t a large window to fit the ball into if he wants his receiver to have a chance of catching it especially against the Monarch’s two-deep look with their safeties. Instead of moving off his primary read to either Keene streaking up the middle or Peoples as a checkdown, he tries to force it in a tight window. That is asking for a turnover.
And if that play was asking for a turnover, this throw was essentially begging for it. On the penultimate play where the Hokies had a chance to tie this game, Willis seeks out Eric Kumah on an out route to the field side. Which is something, as a quarterback with a limited arm, you never want to force. By my quick and probably inaccurate Pythagorean calculation, in order to complete this ball Willis has to throw this pass 45-ish yards on a rope.
There’s a reason they call this the hardest throw to make in football. College quarterbacks who can make this type of throw generally go in the first 10 picks of the NFL draft.
Against ACC opponents, this decision is a pick-six. And again, Willis has time in the pocket and doesn’t move off that read once he locks onto Kumah. He could have possibly found Sean Savoy underneath for at least a first down, or gone to Hazelton on the opposite side. We will see if that changes this week against Duke or if it’s a bad habit firmly hardwired in Willis’ brain.
Virginia Tech can stay competitive despite the loss of Josh Jackson, assuming the defense gets their issues resolved. The offense will be able to put up points with Willis at the helm as long as they afford him time in the pocket to set his feet. The zone read and option plays will stay in the playbook as well. As a backup, Willis nearly led them away from the jaws of an upset. As a starter, we will see what he can accomplish with a full week of Fuente’s determined, undivided attention.