When Josh Jackson arrived at the Virginia Tech football facilities on Monday, he expected his 12:30 p.m. meeting to be a normal one.
Little did he know, he was about to be named as the starting quarterback for the Hokies.
“We were just meeting today, that’s about it,” Jackson said. “They told me, and told me this was all happening. It’s kind of a surprise to be honest, I thought it was just a regular Monday, but yeah.”
Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente made the announcement to the media Monday afternoon, shortly after notifying Jackson, AJ Bush and Hendon Hooker.
“Looking back over his development, I’ve just been pleased with his consistency, his demeanor, his ability to process information, and some of the things we gave him to work on going through the summer, I think he’s made improvements on,” Fuente said of Jackson. “It’s time for us to start to get those guys working together, in terms of the first unit.”
Getting those reps with the first-team will be important for Jackson and Virginia Tech, who is currently trying to break in several young receivers and running backs.
“I think that will be good, because now we’ll all really be on the same page,” Jackson said. “I’ll be able to get all the reps with those guys and just get better and better with them.”
Fuente has been very open about what he expects from his starting quarterbacks. They need to show a level head and display good in-game attitude, while knowing the offense and taking care of the ball. For Virginia Tech, Jackson checks all three boxes.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s very consistent,” Fuente said. “He’s continued to improve, in terms of his ability to deliver the ball on time. He’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished, like I said, a great demeanor. There’s competitive spirit in there, not that there’s not with the other ones, but the word that comes to my mind is day in and day out, he’s been the most consistent, in terms of the things that we talked about, the kind of three criteria that we talked about before this camp started that we were looking for — taking care of the ball, expected outcomes and then how we feel. In those three categories, we feel the best about Josh.”
“His execution, his level of understanding of the offense, his ability to get out there, play after play, and do exactly what he’s supposed to do,” Cornelsen said. “Protecting the football is a… he’s showed us that’s really important to him. Those factors combined all together, all three of those kdis have really good skill sets and talent, and they’re all a little bit different, so I think Josh is a little bit of all of it. He can set in the pocket and throw, he can run the ball, ultimately it comes back to him making good decisions and taking care of the football for us.”
Jackson said the biggest thing he’s focused on was learning the offense, and sharpening his mind for the position.
“I think a lot of it for me is mental,” Jackson said. “I try to focus on the mental aspect of the game and be the best at that, and then you just have to be consistent and be able to get the ball out quickly, which is what I’ve tried to work on all summer, all winter, because I know that’s what I need to work on, and I think that helped out in the competition.”
The quarterback competition has raged on since the beginning of winter workouts back in January. Since then, Jackson, Bush and Hooker have vied for the job, and according to the coaches, it’s been really close until recently.
“I think within the last two or three (practices), it was starting to lean that way,” Cornelsen said. “It wasn’t something going into it that he had separated himself. I really felt like coming out of the spring, it was, I didn’t know, it was between all of them to be honest with you. It was a toss up going into it, and he executed.”
“No, it wasn’t one thing,” Fuente said. “Quite honestly, I’m not going to give you all an update weekly on who’s moved forward and who’s not, just out of regard for our kids. It’s been an ongoing evaluation, and Josh has continued to prove that in our estimation…we think he’s the guy. It was not a one practice decision.”
As far as the No. 2 job, Virginia Tech is still evaluating Bush and Hooker. However, Bush is the early leader to be the backup to Jackson.
“We’ll continue to have those guys compete for the No. 2 spot. If it went on today, AJ (Bush) would be the second guy,” Fuente said. “He obviously has a pretty special skill set that moving forward, we’ll continue to develop. All that being said, I’ve been very pleased with Hendon (Hooker). He’s made big strides, he’s got a chance to have a really bright future.”
Fuente also notified Bush and Hooker of the news on Monday, and said that the two are handling the decision with class.
“I really appreciate those young men, and how they’ve handled it,” Fuente said. “I met with all three of them, Coach Cornelsen has met with them, they are about the team and they are about doing things the right way, and I anticipate there will be zero difference in their demeanor and their effort, and their attitude today at practice, as opposed to the other day.”
Even though Jackson has been named the starter, things could change after week one. Virginia Tech didn’t commit to Jerod Evans for the long-term until after Tech’s season-opener vs. Liberty, and it’s the same situation this season with Jackson.
“That’s the same thing that we had last year,” Fuente said. “To me, Josh is the starter, we’re moving forward, and we’ll see how it goes. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in Josh or don’t have his back, or anything like that. That just means the bottom line is, it’s different when you say a player is going to be the starter, and he’s been the starter for two straight years, as opposed to guys who haven’t played. Regardless of what direction we went, it would have been the same mindset with all three.”
Jackson, a redshirt-freshman, says that he’s excited to get things going as the starter. His debut will be much bigger than Evans’ as the Hokies open the 2017 season at FedEx Field vs. West Virginia.
“It’s still 11-on-11 football,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be a great environment and everything like that, but I can’t really think about that because if you do think about that, you’re going to get caught up in it, and then you won’t play well, in my opinion.”
Supporting cast still a concern for Virginia Tech
Even though Virginia Tech has found a quarterback, they’re still looking to find reliable contributors in the supporting cast.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Fuente said. “I’m excited about guys that are out there working. We’ve been at it 11 days and we’ve had guys not in, out, and as you always have through camp, on both sides of the ball. I’m anxious to get the band back together, so to speak, to get everybody out there working together. To me, that’s a huge part of the process of what we’ve got moving forward. I just mean we have a lot of work to do there. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy with those kids. We just have a lot of growing up and development to do with the supporting cast.”
One name to watch is freshman wide receiver Hezekiah Grimsley. Grimsley didn’t enroll until this summer, but has quickly impressed the coaches and seems on track to see the field this season.
“Hezekiah has had an excellent fall camp,” Cornelsen said. “He has, I don’t know if he’s missed a rep, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s in there, and he’s working his butt off and he’s learning, and he’s been one of the surprises for me at camp. Not that we didn’t think he had talent, but just how quickly he has jumped in there. In the last week, half the time he’s in there with the ones, going against the one defense.”
As far as running back goes, Cornelsen says that the Hokies will likely rely on several players to get the job done.
“There’s still a big group of those guys. I think we’re going to need them all,” Cornelsen said. “Certainly, Jalen Holston, as a new guy, has proven that he’s going to be a guy that I think is going to be ready to play a little bit this year, if he continues to come on. The guys who have some experience, McClease coming back off injury, that’ll hopefully be a big group of guys that we can go into the season with that know what to do, we trust them with the ball in their hands… it’ll be by committee for sure.”