Experience Level Leads To Ryan Willis Being Named Starting Quarterback

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Ryan Willis, Virginia Tech
Ryan Willis is Tech’s starting quarterback. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente confirmed during Thursday’s press conference with the media that redshirt senior Ryan Willis will start against Boston College on August 31. 

Hendon Hooker was named the backup while Quincy Patterson will be slotted into the No. 3 quarterback role.Crop featured image

“I’m really happy with both of those guys,” Fuente said of Willis and Hooker. “Hendon has put a tremendous amount of work in and has improved greatly. I feel really comfortable with him. Ryan is just a little more consistent right now. He has game experience as well.

“Quincy will be the third guy. He continues to work hard and develop. We’ll see how those roles all play out.”

Last year, Willis became the starter after Josh Jackson broke his fibula in the loss to Old Dominion. The Overland Park, Kansas native threw for 2,716 yards, 24 touchdowns, and nine interceptions while starting 10 games. 

Willis was Tech’s third straight quarterback to pass for 20 or more touchdowns, following Jerod Evans’ 29 touchdown passes in 2016 and Jackson’s 20 in 2017.

“Just because I’m the starter doesn’t mean I can stop working,” Willis said. “I need to keep hitting the film, keep practicing and bringing others along and get better every day.”

Those 10 games gave Willis valuable experience heading into the 2019 season where the Hokies as a whole are expecting to take a step forward.

“I think he understands the system better now,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said.  “Getting 10 games or whatever it was under his belt, there’s nothing that replaces that experience. So, just the simple execution of the plays he’s more comfortable with. And I think that adds to being able to play faster. Every day, every series he goes out there in a game it’s a battle between him and himself to just focus in and lock in on the details of what he needs to do.”

The biggest complaint against Willis last year was that he tried to do too much, sometimes attempting to put on a superhero cape instead of making the smart play. 

It reared its ugly head against Notre Dame when he scrambled out of the pocket and was strip sacked, leading to a Fighting Irish touchdown late in the first half. There was also the other side of it with the “scared money don’t make money” throw to Dalton Keene to set up the tying touchdown versus UVa to force overtime.

For Willis, it will really be about that balancing act of staying within the system and taking calculated risks in 2019.

“We want people to be aggressive and try to go make plays and also understand that things won’t always go your way on the field, especially at that spot,” Fuente said. “Also finding that balance of trying to squeeze things into tight looks or being able to throw the ball where only our guy can get it if it is a tight look. There’s small nuances of ball location and anticipation that he’s continuing to improve on.”

Willis and reporters joked about a hypothetical devil on his shoulders pleading him to take a risk that’s not needed. He claims those days are in the past.

“I think coach Corn and coach Fuente have knocked that little devil off my shoulder,” Willis said with a chuckle. “We like taking chances on occasion when they’re given to us, but we’re never going to put the ball in jeopardy. That’s our No. 1 thing. Ball security.”

The gunslinger has gone through a path that few others have encountered. Willis began his career at Kansas and started eight games as a true freshman, throwing for 1,719 yards, nine touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in a season where the Jayhawks went 0-12. He started three games the next year before deciding to transfer.

Willis landed in Blacksburg as a walk-on, showed diligence during his redshirt season, eventually earned a scholarship, and will now be the starting quarterback when the Hokies march into Alumni Stadium in nine days.

“I’ve gone through a lot of stuff,” Willis said. “Ups and downs, ups and downs. The one thing that has remained constant the whole time is my love for the game. I love football. I love stepping on the field and competing, and I’m going to do everything I can for this team. And I just want to go 1-0 and win one game at a time.

“I definitely haven’t taken the easiest route. I’ve really never had anything handed to me from the get-go. It made me the person I am today.”

The redshirt senior has now been named a starting quarterback, whether to begin the season or in the middle of the season, on four separate occasions at two different schools. Over the time he’s shown to be a player who’s tough and competes.

“He’s been through it at two different schools and there was never any hesitation,” Cornelsen said. “He knows just because he’s been named the starter, he’s still got to go earn it every day too. There was never a blink or anything to that extent.”

Being named QB1 is just the first step, and Willis isn’t complacent. He’s ready to milk his final year for all it’s worth.

“I can still take another step,” Willis said. “I’m not where I want to be yet. Luckily we still have nine more days to put on some finishing touches. We know we’ve just got to be geared up. We need to turn our attention to BC, and we’re going to do everything we can to win that game.”

Other News and Notes

  • Still no decision has been made on Brock Hoffman’s appeal process. “There has been talks between compliance and the NCAA,” Fuente said. “That’s all I have for you on that…  I’m not one to comment on it because I’m not involved. It’d be like me weighing in on politics or something.”
  • The deepest position for Virginia Tech might be the tight ends. Dalton Keene returns after an Honorable Mention All-ACC performance in 2018. James Mitchell has arguably been the most talked about player heading into the season. Drake DeIuliis still hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential, and Nick Gallo is a promising true freshman. “We through recruiting have kind of built that position up, and we’ve always liked to use two in a game as we can,” tight ends coach James Shibest said. “This gives us some options to be able to do that, so maybe create some matchups for us just through size and stuff.”
  • ACC Network obligations force some teams to play conference games to open the season. How does Fuente feel about opening the season that way? “I’ve said this before, I don’t mind playing these games,” Fuente said. “I like the way we go about trying to prepare our guys early in the year. I’d like to play one of these games at home every now and again. I hope the ACC Network is listening, letting us play one of these home-openers sometime.”
  • Since Fuente has been the coach, the Hokies have used a running back by committee approach. It’s likely headed that way again in 2019 with Jalen Holston, Deshawn McClease, and Keshawn King handling a majority of the carries. When asked about the approach, running backs coach Zohn Burden offered an interesting response. “It’s like this throughout the country, if you have a guy who’s hot, you leave him in,” Burden said. “We’re always hoping that someone gets hot and you leave him in and let them roll.”
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9 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. The thing is, we know hot backs are not left in. We see rotations. We see people sent in because the play or package says they are in. It is a myth to say that hot backs will be kept in. They are not. Have not.

    1. Exactly! Totally agree. This is why we have lost VT RBs and recruits to other teams. RBs need a chance to get lathered up.

    2. I can’t remember the last time we had a “hot” back. Maybe 1st quarter of the FSU game last year?

  2. Tight ends are the most versatile and productive players on offense. Stack the offense with them–all 4 on the field at once.

    Willis is very good and we’re in great shape with him at the helm!

    Go Hokies!

  3. “It’s like this throughout the country, if you have a guy who’s hot, you leave him in,” Burden said.

    This is absolutely false, I’m sorry. How many times last year did RBs have a few good plays only to be taken out for 2 drives…? Seriously don’t get this quote from him.

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