BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson heads into this season having not played a down of major college football. The glaring omission on his résumé is hardly cause for anguish though, Hokies Coach Justin Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen have said repeatedly since announcing the redshirt freshman as the starter two weeks into training camp.
Jackson is set to make his debut in the Hokies’ season opener Sunday night against No. 22 West Virginia at FedEx Field. He will be the third starting quarterback in as many seasons for Virginia Tech, which opened at No. 21 in the Associated Press preseason rankings.
“I have seen a guy that has grown in confidence and mastery of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Fuente, in his second year at Virginia Tech, said of Jackson. “But we saw some of that before we named him the starter, which is obviously what led us to that conclusion.”
Given their recent history of transforming unproven quarterbacks into record-setters, Fuente and Cornelsen have every reason to be at peace with the decision.
Last season, redshirt junior Jerod Evans won the starting job shortly before the opener without having taken a snap in a major college game. He went on to set eight single-season Virginia Tech records, most notably for total offense (4,392 yards), passing yards (3,546), touchdown passes (29) and rushing yards by a quarterback (846) before declaring for the NFL draft.
One year earlier, when Fuente was coach at Memphis and Cornelsen was his offensive coordinator, Paxton Lynch set Tigers single-season records for passing yards (3,776), touchdown passes (28) and completion percentage (66.8). Lynch was selected 26th overall by the Denver Broncos in the 2016 NFL draft.
Fuente and Cornelsen, then the quarterbacks coach, had elevated Lynch to starter when he was a redshirt freshman in 2013.
“Josh, he kind of goes about his business the same way since he showed up a year and a half ago I guess,” Cornelsen said. “Being named the starter hasn’t changed him. He’s going to continue to become a bigger leader for our offense as the season goes along. That’s something that comes pretty natural to him. He’s not a kid that feels like he’s going to have to manufacture some leadership. I think it’s in there.”
Jackson climbed to first string following a three-way competition with AJ Bush and Hendon Hooker, both of whom also are untested at this level. Bush, the Hokies’ No. 2 quarterback, transferred from Iowa Western Community College and was at Nebraska for two seasons but did not play.
At this time last year, Hooker was preparing for his senior season in high school.
Jackson had another advantage coming into camp: He traveled with the Hokies last season. He studied Evans’s habits while learning the finer points of the offensive scheme that helped Virginia Tech win the ACC’s Coastal Division on the way to a 10-4 record.
Among other deciding factors in promoting Jackson included his attention to ball security and quick decision-making.
“Last year I got to prepare and get ready like I was going to play,” Jackson said. “Being able to take that into this season I think will be very helpful. Obviously I’ve had since January to prepare and look at West Virginia. It kind of gives you a lot more of an edge, I guess you could say, but when it gets to the week to week, I think that will definitely help me a lot.”
Jackson’s youth underscores a prevailing trend within the offense, which in addition to Evans lost starting wide receivers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges and starting running back Sam Rogers.
Ford completed his career as Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in receiving yards (2,967) and touchdowns (24). The seventh-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins is the only player in school history with 1,000 yards receiving in a season after doing so in 2015 and 2016.
The Hokies’ only returning player with at least 19 catches and 300 yards receiving last season is Cam Phillips (DeMatha High), who operated in the slot. This season, the senior becomes the primary wide receiver on the outside, with redshirt junior C.J. Carroll (Good Counsel) and sophomore Eric Kumah (Forest Park) in the mix to contribute.
Among Virginia Tech’s top four leading rushers last season, only Travon McMillian (Hylton), a redshirt junior, is back. Evans led the Hokies in rushing, Rogers was third, and Marshawn Williams was fourth. Williams retired from football in January after undergoing knee surgery for the third time since 2014.
The dearth of experience in the backfield leaves redshirt sophomore Deshawn McClease and junior Steven Peoples in line to share carries with McMillian, who amassed 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns on 200 attempts two years ago.
Fuente’s offense doesn’t necessarily rely on a featured runner, instead spreading touches around to keep defenses guessing and players fresh. Virginia Tech just happened to lean on Evans last season, according to Fuente, because of his size (240 pounds), speed and elusiveness.
“I think the leadership we have in me, Travon McMillian and [redshirt senior guard] Wyatt Teller, I think that can help us greatly to bring along some of these young guys,” Phillips said. “I think they’ve done a great job thus far. I’ve tried to lead them as best I can, and I’m going to continue to do that hopefully to bring success to our team.”
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