Hendon Hooker and Ryan Willis: The Other Quarterbacks at Virginia Tech

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Virginia Tech football
Hendon Hooker (2) and Ryan Willis are “the other guys” in Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback competition. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Once Josh Jackson began to slip in the second half of the 2017 season, many began to clamor for the next man up. Jackson threw for 200 yards or more just twice in Virginia Tech’s final five games, and some believed that he was beginning to show physical limitations.

In reality, Jackson was hurt for most of the second half of last season. Still, many want another option at quarterback in 2018. Everyone knows redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker and Kansas transfer Ryan Willis are the other two options, but who are they exactly?

Virginia Tech fans are likely the most knowledgeable about Hooker. The former Greensboro, N.C. recruit arrived in Blacksburg with some notoriety, given the schools that wanted him in the recruitment process. Hooker threw for 55 touchdowns and ran for another 48 scores at Dudley High School, and figured to be an option to start at quarterback in 2017.

Hooker enrolled at Virginia Tech early and impressed in last year’s Spring Game, completing 10-of-11 pass attempts for 115 yards while throwing a touchdown and an interception. Hooker looked calm and poised, and took what the defense gave him.

Jackson ended up beating out both Hooker and AJ Bush, meaning Hooker was a likely redshirt.

“At the time, it was disappointing when I got the news, but in the long run it really helped me out,” Hooker said. “It helped me improve my little things, physical aspects of the game, and mental.”


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Hooker’s redshirt was abnormal in the fact that he took reps with the offense during practice. Hooker was “on alert” for most of 2017, meaning he practiced with the first and second-team offenses, instead of working exclusively with the scout team.

“It was very beneficial,” Hooker said. “Being on the scout team, you’re obviously doing the other team’s plays, running the other team’s plays. But being in the system and getting more reps, the more you’re in it, the better…”

“He wasn’t just running plays off cards all year,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “I think he’s maintained, his retention level has been good and that was a good thing for him heading into the spring.”

While Jackson likely stretched his lead over Hooker from last season, thanks to 13 games of starting experience, Hooker is approaching this spring the same way.

“Everyone comes out every day and works hard and try to improve on things that are new or old,” Hooker said. “Everything is coming back into play. Just trying to get back into the rhythm of things.”

Virginia Tech football
Ryan Willis (orange) came to Virginia Tech not only to resurrect his career, but also to find his love for football again. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

While Hooker got reps with the offense last season, Ryan Willis did not. The Kansas transfer-turned walk-on was ineligible last season after leaving the Jayhawks, but the move was necessary. Willis needed to get away from Kansas to find his love for football again.

“It’s hard losing,” Willis said. “I’m a competitive person. My high school team went undefeated my senior year. Then to transition into that kind of program — I’m just a competitive person, like I said. I like winning. I like doing the best I can, playing at the highest level I can, and at Virginia Tech, I got the chance to do that.”

Willis did a lot of losing at Kansas. He played in 10 games as a true freshman in 2015, losing all of them. The 2016 season didn’t go much better, as Willis lost five of his six starts and was benched halfway through the season. He completed less than 55 percent of his passes at Kansas, throwing 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

“He quite honestly probably played before he was ready on a team that wasn’t very good,” Fuente said. “Kind of got thrown in the fire there.”

Given Kansas’ inability to win, plus a career on the verge of derailing, Willis decided to transfer.

“I asked for permission [to transfer] from Kansas, so I still had my spot on the team, I was still allowed to look around at other teams. We kind of had a connection with Coach Shibest. My dad was actually friends with him way back when, I don’t even know how they met. Started talking and other than that, I decided to come here. It was a good fit for me.”

“We became a comfortable landing spot for him and I’m excited to have him here,” Fuente said. “He’s fit in great with the kids, works incredibly hard. He’s been really good in the weight room and I’m excited to have him aboard.”

Willis is the most experienced quarterback on Virginia Tech’s roster, even though the experience came over a year ago and at a different school. Still, that kind of experience should benefit him as he competes for the starting job at Virginia Tech.

“Obviously it was in a different offense in a different time, and all of those sorts of things, but I do think that’s a good thing,” Fuente said of Willis. “He’s had some experience. Now how much of that carries over and that sort of stuff, I’m not sure, but I do think it makes you a little more grizzled, in terms of being out there and playing in real time, the speed, and having some idea of what it’s like out there.”

“Experience is experience,” Willis said. “Having live bullets thrown at you, nothing can really replace that. Playing in front of 50-60,000 people, can’t really replace that.”

Now, after taking a step back, Willis feels much improved from those disastrous days at Kansas.

“Taking a year off was good,” Willis said. “Like I said, I got really into the playbook, X’s and O’s. Just looking at the game from a different perspective. It’s just different. I mean it was hard. Sitting out was really tough on me. When the team was out of town, that hurt, when you’re left behind in town. But it made me work hard every day and I think I’m a better person because of it.”

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21 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. You guys that “know” Hooker is better than JJ are so lucky that you get to attend practice everyday to evaluate the QBs, I’m so jealous! Not only are you lucky enough to watch thousands of throws at practice, but you also know quarterbacks better than a guy who helped develop Andy Dalton into a 2nd round NFL draft pick and Paxton Lynch into a 1st round draft pick. What’s that? You don’t get to attend practice and no one pays you millions to evaluate and develop quarterbacks? And you’re really just making your evaluation on high school recruiting rankings and performance in a glorified scrimmage? Brilliant.

    1. Guys, lets let Coach do his job and stop second guessing. If a kid reads these posts I would think they would question the fan base and if this was the type of school they wanted to attend. VT is a great school and we demean ourselves with such negative talk. Coaches stay and leave by the personnel decisions.
      Go Hokies

  2. If Fuente wants JJ to start, that’s who will start. And He let him play hurt last season, which might have cost VT a game or maybe two. This “talk” Coach playing the best is Way over rated, he plays who Picks to run his offensive and feels better with. Hooker can outplay JJ in about parts being QB. He was Athlete of the Year in North Carolina , one of the best dual threat QB’s in rankings when he picked VT. If Fuente looks past him for a QB that has no Long Ball and Slow in running.Then I hope he transfers and Plays somewhere else. The Hotbed for VT recruiting has been NC in the last few years, Burn that Bridge and then see what happens. Michigan is Not VT’s hotbed , Fuente might like JJ’s Dad but VT don’t recruit in that area. McCain Loved his Boy and overlooked Tyrod Taylor , So don’t give me this BS about playing the best…

      1. Fuente will play the QB who gives us the best chance to win the most games. I was very disappointed in JJ the second half of last year. He was hurt and STILL played. You say that cost us a game. I say Fu thought it was our best/only chance to win.

        I believe Fuente will play the best QB. NOT the one who might look best to potential recruits in any area. NOT the one whose dad he likes. I believe Fuente would bench his brother-in-law if he had a better QB.

        For him to do otherwise else would mean he is soon on TSL as a fan and ex-coach matching wits with you and other “keyboard coaches” who don’t rely on those decisions for their livelihood!

        Give it a rest dude…If Hooker is better, Hooker will start! PERIOD!

        1. Great post, RIT!
          JRHokie is accusing Fuente (and he’s done it multiple times) of playing favorites instead of playing those who give the team the best opportunity to win. It’s an attack on Fuente’s character and integrity with absolutely no foundation in fact.

    1. And as a result Hooker got to redshirt and has four years of eligibility left. That’s not insignificant.

    1. How many times have you heard this statement. ” well, you really can’t call them freshmen anymore when you re ten games into the season”. Yet after two years in the program, we are still calling JJ a freshman. Tells you something.

      1. What your post tells me is that you are confusing two different concepts. One is the real designation of a redshirt freshman, the other is a theoretical concept about freshman and redshirt freshmen playing at a higher level after not even completing a complete season.
        If it tells you anything else, it’s only in your mind.

  3. I’m still confident the Head Hokie will go with the QB that gives us the best chance to win the most.
    I’ll check back with yawl in late August. Be patient!

    1. Jeez…why would you think that? Possibly because his JOB and coaching career depend on it?

      Well yeah….OK, there IS that… :>)

      1. vethokie’s post was probably a direct response to JRHokie above who seems to lack confidence in the decision making ability and character of our head coach.

  4. I’m shocked that the coaches would leave JJ in to play hurt when he isn’t all that good when healthy. The coaches failed by ending the qb competition early when they should have let the competition go through the early 2017 cupcake games against DEL, ECU and ODU. Hooker appears to have huge upside and might be the best fit for an RPO offense. Willis can throw a nice deep ball and seems athletic enough to run an RPO offense. I just hope they have a real competition for the QB spot since QB play last year was mediocre.

    1. Mostly Disagree. JJ was getting all sorts of national accolades until slowed by injury. He and the UGA QB were rated 1-2 for freshman QB’s the entire season. The only thing I might agree with is that perhaps Bush should have played more or Hooker’s RS burned to give JJ a chance to heal down the stretch. QB play was a bit inconsistent but to call it mediocre is unnecessarily harsh IMHO.

    2. Willis (transfer) and Hooker (redshirt) were unavailable last year. If they are better this year, they will start.

    3. JJ not “all that good when healthy?”

      I think your derogatory comment is inaccurate, and unfair.

    4. Mostly agree. The GT game was misery to sit through. Unless we improve at qb, we won’t be real good.

  5. Ricky, nice idea for an article. I for one am most interested in what makes our players tick, especially the quarterbacks. I sure would like to see Hooker get meaningful playing time this season.

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