So with Thomas’s college career over, Beamer was asked to ponder the program’s uncertain future under center. He gave a definitive response.
“Mark’s the next guy in line here,” Beamer said of Leal. “He had a couple tough throws. He’ll learn from that. . . . That’s not a great situation for your backup guy to step into. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mark. I’ve seen him in practice too many times.”
Last year, Virginia Tech fans spent the weeks after their bowl game wondering exactly what Beamer might do with his coaching staff. They will do the same this offseason when it comes to the program’s next quarterback despite Beamer’s postgame proclamation.
It’s the first time since 2008, when Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon were splitting snaps under center, that the Hokies have had anything resembling a quarterback controversy. Though Thomas had to win the job in spring practice in 2011, it was clear early it was his to lose.
Next season’s battle could be more convoluted. In addition to Leal, redshirt freshman Brenden Motley is already on the roster. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has also received pledges from two signal callers — four-star prospects Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin. Ford, a lefty, plans to enroll in school later this month to participate in spring practice.
Freshman Bucky Hodges, a four-star quarterback recruit from the 2013 class, is expected to be moved to tight end before next season.
Thomas believes Leal, his backup the past three years, deserves a chance to be the program’s next starting quarterback. Leal, who finished
12 for 25 for 130 yards and two interceptions Tuesday, did not speak with reporters after the Sun Bowl.
“He’s been groomed for four years now,” Thomas said earlier this month. “He’s the future of the program for next year. Any way I can help him, I will. He’s just got to start taking things seriously and understanding it’s his team.”
Whoever takes the reins will do so with a more experienced supporting cast. The Hokies return every major contributor on offense besides Thomas and right guard Andrew Miller. Loeffler, meanwhile, would like to return to the program’s roots and develop a punishing rushing attack after Virginia Tech struggled to run the ball the past two seasons.
“Offensively, I think we’re going to be stronger,” wide receiver Willie Byrn said. “Last spring, you can’t even really call it a spring because it was so basic that this year we’re really going to be able to implement some good stuff, find out who else can contribute to this offense. And another six months in this offense, with our coaches and getting comfortable with our new quarterback, is going to make a world of difference.”
On defense, there will be more holes to fill, particularly in the front seven. If defensive tackle Luther Maddy and safety Kyshoen Jarrett return — both juniors have sought input from the NFL draft advisory board over the past month — the Hokies will have five starters back from a unit that finished the regular season fourth in the country in total defense.
The Sun Bowl, though, was Virginia Tech’s worst defensive performance of the season as UCLA racked up 447 yards. The Hokies struggled with mobile quarterbacks all year, and Bruins signal caller Brett Hundley rushed for 161 yards, including an 86-yard touchdown run in which the Hokies were confused as to what defense had been called.
“We just did things that we hadn’t done all year,” senior linebacker Jack Tyler said.
Beamer is 9-12 in bowl games, and this latest defeat stung. It’s easy to forget the score was just 14-10 heading into the fourth quarter.
“We’re going to remember this, and we’re going to remember them throwing bombs over our head with [five] minutes left,” Byrn said. “And maybe we’ll see them down the road. If not, we’ll take our anger out on some other people.”