The Virginia Tech football program finds itself at a crossroads. For the first time since Tyrod Taylor's senior season, HokieNation is uncertain of the future at the quarterback position. Mark Leal may end up winning the starting job in 2014, but ultimately Scot Loeffler will be measured on his quarterbacks.
Loeffler secured verbal commitments from two highly regarded class of 2014 quarterbacks, Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin. Loeffler also pursued David Cornwell (Alabama) and Jacob Park (Georgia). The first quarterback to sign with Tech was Cedar Cliff High School's (Pennsylvania) Andrew Ford. Ford, is a 6-3,193-pound lefty thrower. He's rated as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com and a 4-star recruit by 247Sports. He was also selected as an Elite 11 quarterback. As a senior, he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania.
Quarterback is perhaps the most difficult position to evaluate on a highlight film. It is challenging to determine the level of competition, the quality of receivers, and also factor in the competency of the system to get receivers open. I, like I am sure everyone else who watched, was very impressed with Ford when I watched his junior season highlight reel following his commitment this summer. However, I wanted to dig a bit deeper and see him in game situations. Not only was I looking for mechanics, arm strength, and athleticism, but I was also looking for his field generalship. Loeffler wants the quarterback to be the boss of the huddle and direct traffic out on the field, including making adjustments and setting protections. "The Guy" will not only need to be a thrower, but a player who can win a game with his arm, feet, strength of personality, and brain.
I was very fortunate to stumble upon a YouTube video of Ford's Cedar Cliff team taking on unbeaten Hershey around the fourth week of the 2013 season. Every snap is featured, so I had an opportunity to see Ford run the huddle, go through pre-snap progressions, make plays with his feet and and arm, and make mistakes.
Ford has complete and total confidence in his accuracy. He adjusts angles and trajectories of passes and has outstanding chemistry with his receivers. In high school, his offense ran a great deal of post-wheel, slant wheel, and straight go routes. He completed over 66 percent of his passes during the 2013 season, and a large number were high risk deep balls. It is difficult to really judge his arm strength because so many of his deep throws are touch passes that come down from a high trajectory where only his receivers have a legitimate shot to make the catch.
Here is a terrific example. Cedar Cliff often motioned put a receiver in a jet sweep motion, and then throws play-action routes up the seams in an effort to catch the safeties mesmerized by the motion. Ford throws a seam route off an outside release against man coverage.
The throw is a high arcing pass that lands softly right into the receiver's arms. The receiver did break stride to make the catch, but as you can recall, Logan Thomas would often overthrow similar routes because his lower trajectory didn't allow for receivers to run underneath the pass.
You see these tear drop type throws again and again on film. Later in the second half, Ford again looks for a mismatch and finds the seam route available.
You will note how Ford sees a matchup that he likes and steps out to make an audible. Recall the Sub Bowl when Mark Leal didn't check to his best matchups when he had Willie Byrn and Joel Caleb in man coverage situations against UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt. Ford clearly gets the matchup he wanted, because he stares down the slot receiver on the linebacker all the way. Even though Ford dropped the pass in his receiver's hands, he doesn't make the catch.
Ford finds the matchup he wants, and hits the seam route in stride against man coverage.
These were all beautiful touch passes. Even when moving the pocket, Ford has outstanding ability to get his body into position to make throws. That footwork is reflected in his accuracy. As you can from his film at the Elite 11 Nike camp, he is mobile and maintains accuracy on the move.
Against Hershey he takes snaps from the shotgun, pistol, and under center and shows that he has excellent footwork to properly execute handoffs from all three depths. He is very comfortable using jet sweep motion from the pistol, which requires excellent timing to execute a dive fake and get the handoff to the sweep man without all three crashing together.
He also has that big man on campus air to him. Often, Ford worked from five receiver sets with no blocking back to help pick up blitzes. He was tasked with setting the protections for the o-line, recognizing blitzes, and making sight adjustments for receiver routes based on coverage. He is vocal and demonstrative, and looks like the boss on the field.
He also has tremendous composure. Here, the running back goes the wrong way on a dive. When the back isn't there to take the handoff, Ford calmly tucks the ball, reverse pivots, and runs for a touchdown.
With all that being said, there are areas where Ford would need to improve if he seriously wants to contend for a starting job. Like Leal, he is mobile, but he doesn't look to be a particularly physical runner. He may surprise a defense with a keeper every now and then, but he isn't going to be a big threat in the option game. His confidence, especially in his arm and his athletic ability, gets him into trouble. In just this game, he had several opportunities to throw balls away and avoid sacks, and instead he tried to keep plays alive with his feet that really have no chance. Here the Hershey defense jumps the tunnel screen to the right.
Instead of throwing a ground ball, Ford tries to roll to the receiver and he gets eaten up for a major loss. He had several throws where he was rolling to his right and tried to float passes to receivers back to the middle of the field. In high school, you can get away with that throw. In the ACC, those passes are likely interceptions.
Additionally, in this game all of Ford's throws were to the middle of the field. There were not any of the standard NFL style throws to get a feel for his arm strength like the deep out to the boundary or the medium out to the field side. It isn't fair to say that Ford's arm strength isn't I-A caliber because spread quarterbacks often never throw those types of routes (see Anthony Boone at Duke). Or, he may have the ability to make that throw but those types of throws just aren't featured on this tape.
One throw from the game film gave me hope that these passes were massaged to fit the skill and speed of his receivers. First, he has tremendous zip on the ball when he tries to throw on the run, it's evident on Ford's highlight tapes.
Ford rolls left. His receiver fakes a comeback route and goes deep. Because of pressure, Ford can't set his feet, but he still lays it just where his receiver can catch it with plenty of velocity. The defender has no chance to make a play on the ball. Again, the accuracy is outstanding.
In other games, Ford has some throws where he puts a little more mustard on it. Several on this film stand out, including a throw that travels around 45 yards in the air rolling to his right. Unfortunately, those sideline throws that you look for to keep a defense from loading up the middle of the field just are not on tape to comment on.
I walk away from this film impressed with Ford's maturity, leadership, and especially accuracy. He excels at identifying favorable matchups and he is very mobile in the pocket without losing sight of his receivers down field. He has all the footwork fundamentals necessary to execute Scot Loeffler's multiple offense, and he comes in looking rathered polished. I still have some concerns about arm strength, and he will need to bulk up a bit if he is going to try to extend plays and take some of the hits he can expect by scrambling in the ACC. With his accuracy and field generalship, it is very easy to envision a former lefty quarterback who gave the Hokies fits; Boise State's Kellen Moore. Moore didn't have a huge arm, but had the confidence and accuracy to throw the ball into spots where his receivers could make plays. Ford has that look to him.
Will Ford contend for a starting job? It is hard to tell. Ford is such a vastly different style of player than Chris Durkin (bigger, stronger, faster, stronger arm, but much less refined as a passer) that it is difficult to determine how Loeffler wants to move forward with the offense. Loeffler also has two veteran quarterbacks who may be inexperienced, but have a year already in the system. I am sure Coach Beamer would love to be able to win using Mark Leal or Brendan Motley and give Ford and Durkin (and perhaps Travon McMillian) a year to mature, but with tremendous pressure from the fanbase and a new AD looming large, Beamer will go with the quarterback who plays the best in the spring. Ford's ability to identify and take advantage of matchups definitely works to his favor.