BLACKSBURG, Va. — Before this preseason began, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer hoped he could name a starting quarterback quickly. One would either emerge or he would have to make “a gut decision,” he said last month.
But as Beamer waved his arms like a scale while discussing front-runners Michael Brewer and Mark Leal on Saturday, it became obvious the latter option is very much in play with exactly two weeks remaining before Virginia Tech’s regular season opener against William and Mary.
“You can go in there and list the strengths here, list the strengths there,” Beamer said following his team’s first full scrimmage of training camp, which was closed to reporters. “We’ll meet as a staff tomorrow, talk about it and go from there.”
Beamer added he expected a decision to come “quick,” but it appears Leal has made the battle closer than many expected.
The redshirt senior, who was Logan Thomas’s backup the past three years, fell behind redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley during spring practice after a disastrous performance in relief of Thomas in last year’s Sun Bowl. Combined with Brewer’s arrival from Texas Tech in June, it seemed Leal would become an afterthought this preseason.
But Motley has mostly been relegated to the sidelines during training camp because of a back injury and did not participate in Saturday’s scrimmage. Both Beamer and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler indicated it would be hard for Motley to re-enter the picture after missing so much practice time over the past two weeks.
In his stead, Leal and Brewer are now engaged in a two-player race for the starting job under center. The two split reps with the first team during Saturday’s scrimmage.
“We wish we would’ve been able to get this thing over faster, but it’s been great competition,” Loeffler said before noting Leal has played “much, much better” this month than compared to the spring.
Loeffler, though, would not tip his hand, insisting he had to watch the film from Saturday to draw any conclusions. He also praised Brewer’s experience after playing in a pass-heavy offense at Texas Tech.
Brewer said his best throw of the scrimmage Saturday came on a 35-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Willie Byrn on a play-action pass over the middle.
“Competition just makes everyone better, and I think it’s really brought out the best in both of us,” Brewer said. “Eventually, somebody’s going to get named.”
Leal, who threw the only interception amongst the quarterbacks Saturday, said his strongest sequence came during a 60-yard two-minute drill, which ended with him finding freshman wide receiver Cam Phillips (DeMatha) for a three-yard touchdown.
“I’m not worrying about if I’m ahead or behind,” Leal said of the competition. “I’m just going out there and just trying to do the best I can and perform and win the job at the end of the day.”
As for a timeline for when a quarterback decision will ultimately be made, Leal echoed the thoughts of many anxious Hokies fans.
“Obviously,” he said, “the sooner, the better.”
●Answering a question about the team’s offensive line, Brewer said the offense ran the ball as well as it had all preseason Saturday. Freshman tailback Shai McKenzie continues to be a standout. McKenzie said he had seven carries for 66 yards, including one run of about 50 yards, and a touchdown Saturday. Running backs coach Shane Beamer has indicated already McKenzie and fellow freshmen tailbacks Marshawn Williams and Travon McMillian (Hylton) are prime candidates for immediate playing time this year. As a team, Virginia Tech rushed for 183 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
●Defensive coordinator Bud Foster held out several nicked up defensive starters from Saturday’s scrimmage for precautionary reasons, including safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett, linebacker Ronny Vandyke (South County), cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive lineman Luther Maddy. But sophomore defensive tackle Woody Baron, who had missed the start of training camp as he recovered from offseason ankle surgery, did participate Saturday and Foster said it’s unlikely he redshirts after showing improvement over the past week.
●Foster also praised freshman linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka and defensive end Seth Dooley. Both, he said, will have roles providing depth for the Hokies’ defense this year. On the offensive side of the ball, Phillips and fellow freshman wideout Isaiah Ford continued to earn kudos from coaches and teammates and look to be in the mix for significant playing time this fall.
●Beamer said freshman Michael Santamaria, who hit a 46-yard field goal Saturday, and freshman Joey Slye, who hit field goals of 42 and 36 yards, are currently the leaders in the team’s place kicking competition.
●Highlights from the scrimmage (at least what we could pry out of the players and coaches since it was closed) included a 65-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Andrew Ford to wide receiver Deon Newsome. Cornerback Kendall Fuller (Good Counsel) blocked a field goal and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown. Tailback J.C. Coleman had an 80-yard touchdown run that was negated by a penalty. McMillian had a five-yard touchdown run.