BLACKSBURG – Josh Jackson laughed a bit last week when he was asked if he expected to simply be elevated to the starting quarterback position by virtue of his having spent the most time in the program. With a junior college transfer and a highly-touted true freshman also on the Hokies roster since the spring, Jackson knew he’d have to earn the job if it was to be his.
“I felt I was playing well throughout the camp,” Jackson, a redshirt freshman, said Monday afternoon, about an hour after being told he would be Tech’s starter when the season opens Sept. 3 against West Virginia at FedEx Field. “I thought I was doing a good job. We were sharing reps and everything like that. But I think I was putting myself in the right position.”
Ahead of the 12th practice of the Hokies’ preseason – and nearly two weeks earlier than last year’s announcement of a starter – second-year coach Justin Fuente tapped Jackson to become the first freshman to start a season-opener since Michael Vick in 1999.
A year after nudging his way into the team’s quarterback competition as a true freshman, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound son of former Michigan assistant coach Fred Jackson, beat out junior college transfer AJ Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker this fall, a decision the staff finalized after Friday’s scrimmage.
“I’ve just been pleased with his consistency, his demeanor, his ability to process information,” Fuente said. “And some of the things that we gave him to work on over the summer, I think he made improvements on. It’s time for us to get those guys working together in terms of the first unit.”
Jackson was recruited by former Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who was a player at Michigan during Jackson’s father’s 23-year tenure on staff. When Fuente and Cornelsen told Jackson he would be the team’s starter, the first thing he did was phone home to tell his father, now a high school coach.
“He knows I play quarterback for him, so that meant a lot to him,” said Jackson, who wears the same No. 17 his father wore when he played quarterback at Jackson State in 1971. “It meant a lot.”
Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said the competition was a “toss-up” earlier in camp, but the past two or three practices, Jackson began to separate himself.
“He can sit in the pocket and throw, he can run the ball,” Cornelsen said. “Ultimately, it comes back to him making good decisions.”
A year ago, ahead of Fuente and Cornelsen’s first season at Tech, they did not name junior college transfer Jerod Evans the team’s starting quarterback until nine days before the opener. This year, with three quarterbacks who have combined to take zero career Division I snaps, there was a thought the process might take even longer.
Instead, with questions at wide receiver, tailback and on the right side of the offensive line, the quarterback battle ended up being the one resolved the soonest.
“It probably happened a little earlier than maybe what I was anticipating,” Cornelsen said. “I don’t know, it works out differently every time. I don’t know if I can put my finger on one exact reason why.”
Clearly, one factor in Jackson winning the job was his ability to protect the football. Ball security – cutting down on interceptions and fumbles – is one of Fuente’s chief requirements for his quarterbacks. Evans threw 29 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions in 422 attempts last season, after beating out fifth-year senior Brenden Motley and an emerging Jackson for the job.
“Protecting the football, he’s showed us that that’s really important to him,” Cornelsen said. He can sit 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.”