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Now That We've Seen Hooker Play, What Was Fuente Thinking?

It’s been two weeks since Virginia Tech decided to make a quarterback change on its starting offense.

Having watched the last two games, I have questions.

Not about Hendon Hooker. He’s been a pleasant surprise.

My question is about what the heck Justin Fuente has been thinking not playing him earlier.

Quarterback changes are always emotionally charged discussions, as the most popular QB in just about every town is the backup. Fans think since he’s not playing, he must be better than the guy who is, and they keep thinking that right up until the moment the backup plays.

Then they understand why he’s the backup.

In Hooker’s case, the suspicion has been that it’s been more than lack of experience that has kept him from consideration in being a starter. He’s rarely been used, and when he’s gotten in for the occasional play due to injury or mop-up duty, he’s been a run-only quarterback. In one situation last season, he showed his speed and running ability were pretty good too, scoring on a 69-yard run late in the 4th quarter against William & Mary.

But since he never got a serious look at QB after Josh Jackson went down with an injury against Old Dominion last season, the presumption was he was a one-dimensional QB. That was further fueled by Fuente’s decision to go with 5th-year senior Ryan Willis at the start of this season, because most coaches would only go with a guy that old because they felt they had no other option or that the other QBs weren’t ready.

Last season Willis came in after Jackson got hurt and had his ups and downs. The word on Willis from those who had watched him in practice was that he had a gunslinger mentality, and at times could look really good, particularly on deep passes. But, those who watched him practice warned, he was just as capable of following up three great passes with two straight interceptions, a scouting report that turned out to be very accurate in the remaining games of Virginia Tech’s 2018 season.

So to start Willis this season, the thinking went, must have meant Hooker could not throw the deep pass like Willis, or was more prone to turning over the ball than Willis (if that were even possible) or just wasn’t ready to read defenses and run an offense. If that were not true, logic would indicate, only a fool would start a fifth-year senior instead of developing a much younger quarterback who would be able to give you years at the position, versus only a dozen games.

We’ve now watched Hooker for two games, with one against a good team in a hostile environment in Miami, and one against a cupcake at home in a very favorable environment. He won them both.

The notion he’s only a one-dimensional running QB not ready to run an offense?

Not true. Not even close.

Hooker throws a very nice ball, but more importantly, he protects the football. In two games, he has not forced it into coverages that have resulted in interceptions. He hasn’t been sacked a lot because he held the ball and couldn’t pull the trigger. He’s thrown a number of intermediate and longer passes that have landed right in the receiver’s hands, many times in tight coverage. Some have been dropped, but Hooker’s demeanor has not been to be bothered by it. He goes back in the huddle, calls the play again, and keeps throwing it until the receiver does catch it.

He’s doing all of this on top of being a good running quarterback. My problem with Willis has always been that Fuente’s offense leans heavily on run-pass option (RPO) plays and Willis is not necessarily an RPO QB. He can run if he has to, but it’s not his real strength, and his decision making on when to pitch or keep hasn’t been the greatest. Defenses know that, and an RPO play works best when there is a legitimate threat of a run or a pass, causing hesitation by the defense. Make the right decision, you take advantage of that hesitation and someone busts free for a long gain.

Hooker is doing that. He is a legitimate threat to run, and at times, the offense has now looked more like the Jared Evans-led offense that won 10 games in 2016 than the Josh Jackson/Ryan Willis offense that only won 6 games last year. His passing has been better than adequate, and he is not just a screen pass/dump off pass kind of QB. He is getting the tight ends and running backs out of the backfield involved in the passing game, and that should open up more things for the running game and receivers, as defenses have to pay attention to more potential weapons.

It would appear you can also see a difference in the body language of his teammates on offense. No offense is meant against Willis, but there seems to be a little more spring in the offense’s step. They seem to like Hooker and respect his leadership. I’ve also talked to a few alumni who have met him, and they say he’s one of the nicest young men you’d ever want to meet.

Most important? In two games he’s had zero interceptions and the team has zero lost fumbles.

You could make the argument that just having Hooker at QB in the opener against Boston College could have won that game for the Hokies. There’s no way of ever knowing, but they lost 35-28, turning the ball over on three interceptions and two fumbles. Take those turnovers away, and there’s a good chance VT wins, starts the season 3-0, and probably doesn’t completely embarrass themselves at home against Duke.

They in all likelihood would have still lost to Duke. But they would probably have not put a big bullseye on the program announcing the Hokies are no longer any good and inviting negative comments from ESPN's Game Day, and they’d be 5-1 instead of 4-2. Which is pretty respectable.

It has always been my opinion that while football may be a team game, a team with a good quarterback is going to win a lot more games than one who doesn’t (as evidence, I introduce to the court the Washington Redskins of late). When a team has a good QB playing well, the threat of a passing game tends to open up the running game. The offensive line seems to block better because the defense is on its heels not knowing what to expect. Receivers seem to put more effort into every play because they know there’s a chance they might get the ball. Even the defense benefits because a good offense gives them time to rest with longer drives versus a series of 3 and outs.

So against that backdrop, the Hokies have had a good young QB who can run or pass, can be further developed, is respected and liked by his teammates, and protects the ball well. Instead, the Hokies went with a fifth-year senior who is not really an RPO QB and is prone to interceptions and fumbles.

All of which begs only one question.

What has Justin Fuente been thinking?

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Tuesday, 12 November 2019

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