With the commitment of Tajh Bullock on Tuesday, Virginia Tech picked up an intriguing quarterback prospect. In his initial season as starter, Bullock threw for 2,274 yards, 28 touchdowns, and led St. Peter's Prep to the Non-Public Group 4 title, their first state championship in 5 years. Listed at 6-4, 223 pounds, Bullock garnered a three-star rating per the 247Sports Composite (0.8638) and held offers from Rutgers, UCLA, Duke, Temple, Syracuse, and others before selecting the Hokies.
Going back to his days as a position coach at TCU, quarterbacks under Justin Fuente have a really unique history. While his signal callers have consistently been leaned upon as primary ball carriers, the Andy Dalton and Josh Jackson's of the world won't jump out as dynamic runners. At the same time, Fuente's passing attack features the same structure while leveraging every imaginable arm type.
The current quarterback room demonstrates that variation. Hendon Hooker has a good arm and is very athletic, but has some limitations with his timing and accuracy in the drop back passing game. Quincy Patterson is the Earl Campbell of quarterbacks, but is even more stymied by inaccuracy. Braxton Burmeister is elusive and does an excellent job of reading options, but has limited arm strength. Former Hokie starter Ryan Willis had all the arm talent in the world and solid athleticism, but was inept with options and reads.
With all this variation, this offense ultimately takes on the identity, strengths, and weaknesses of the quarterback who wins the job. What can the Hokies expect if Bullock wins the job in the future?
Bullock's biggest strength is arm talent. Once Bullock commits to his throw, he has a naturally strong arm that places the football with touch.
Virginia Tech's passing game is built around three pass concepts against man coverage. Outside leverage man triggers slants. Press man, particularly with inside leverage, calls for a fade route. Soft man-to-man with the corner playing several steps off the receiver opens up quick curl routes. A handful of misses on these quick throws (see the bowl game against Kentucky) can derail a drive.
Bullock, who often worked with 2020 Holy Cross signee Byron Shipman (No. 11), looked very comfortable with the quick read and accurate throw required for the quick curl.
As Shipman plants his right foot to lean back for the football, Bullock releases the ball. The throw was sharp and perfectly placed over Shipman's left shoulder. The ball placement places Shipman's body in between the corner and the football, and it also allows Shipman to pivot off his left foot and push up the field for extra yardage. Those quick throws, and the extra couple of yards that the receiver can get after, produces a ton of great down and distance situations. Second-and-shorts facilitate excellent play-action opportunities for big plays.
While Bullock has a strong arm with good touch, he struggles with accuracy. There were a couple of throws on film where Bullock made the quick and correct read that should have produced decent gains. The throw wasn't always well placed to help his receiver catch the ball in stride.
On this next play from the state championship game, Bullock's left slot receiver (No. 1) had a favorable matchup against the outside linebacker.
The receiver runs a quick out to the flat. The outside linebacker (No. 5) closes well on an average route. However, Bullock's throw should lead the receiver. The aiming point should be the receiver's right elbow to the right shoulder pad. Instead, the throw arrives high and inside near the point of the left shoulder. Instead of leading the receiver, the receiver has to stop his feet and twist back to the inside to catch the football. While he makes the catch, the poor ball placement negates what should have been a relatively easy touchdown.
Most of Bullock's inaccuracy stems from issues with his mechanics. On many throws he sets his feet very wide. I believe this hurts his balance and ability to push off his back foot. He also has a tendency to "bail out on his throws" by rotating his left (plant) foot to the outside and fall to the side as he releases the football.
Bullock made one heck of a play on this throw. However, it was endemic of some of the problems with his mechanics.
Bullock drops back off the snap and holds the ball below shoulder-level as he scans the field. As the play progresses, he climbs the pocket. When he does, Bullock's right foot that he pushes off with doesn't close the gap with his left foot. This increases the gap between his feet and throws off his balance. His push-off leg almost buckles as he tries to generate the power to propel the ball down the field. When he releases, his weight moves towards the sideline at the bottom of the screen instead of at his receiver.
At the same time, the throw highlights the arm talent he possesses. Despite a shaky base, Bullock throws the ball with tremendous zip, hitting Shipman right in the hands on a line 30 yards away.
Here's another example of Bullock's mechanics breaking down, especially when he doesn't square his shoulders. On this quick screen, he targeted the left slot receiver.
His forward momentum falls off and to the left on his release. This causes inconsistency in his accuracy and zip. Because it's a quick hitting pass, Bullock should rotate his left foot out (like he is creating a mesh point with the tailback to his left side), firmly plant his right foot, and drive the ball in front of the receiver. Instead, he doesn't turn his hips in time and pulls his body hard to the left to try and get momentum on the throw. The effect of driving away from the receiver causes the ball to tail. The outside linebacker has time to close and make a play on the football.
Bullock has to be more consistent squaring his shoulders and driving through the football. The mechanical issues are correctable as Bullock works on setting his feet properly and pushing his weight through his front foot with his shoulders square.
Throws on the run also appeared on Bullock's film as an area for improvement. Despite his arm strength, that can mitigate some of his effectiveness in the bootleg and screen game which found a niche in Virginia Tech's offense last season.
On this play, Bullock's initial read was the running back in the left flat.
The defensive end sinks along with the back to take away the throw. As the play breaks down, Bullock rolls to his right. The field-side split end breaks open deep. Bullock has time to anticipate the break and set his feet. Instead, he reacts late and attempts to throw on the run.
Bullock underthrows the football, which allows the corner to close the gap and make a play on the ball. An ACC-caliber corner intercepts that pass. Bullock has a good arm, but it's not strong enough to stretch the field while throwing on the run without good mechanics.
Fortunately, Bullock is actively working on his mechanics to improve his power and accuracy as noted in an interview with The Key Play.
"I'm trying to emphasize standing tall in the pocket, not getting too wide [of a base]," said Bullock. "On those out of pocket improvised type throws when I'm on the move, make sure I square my shoulders, get down hill. That's what I'm really trying to emphasize, standing tall in the pocket, squaring my shoulders down to my target on the run."
As a runner, Bullock won't be a dynamic game breaking threat like some of the quarterbacks currently on Virginia Tech's roster. Bullock rushed for 480 yards last season, but was not the primary rusher in the St. Peter's offense. At the same time, he has good instincts and is very quick to read the option. On this inverted veer, both the outside linebacker and the left inside linebacker keyed on the halfback sweep.
Bullock pulls the ball from the mesh point and slides between the tackles for the nice gain.
Bullock isn't a sledgehammer runner, nor is he particularly elusive. However, once he commits to the run, he is patient, has a long stride so he gains yards while not seemingly being very fast, and seems to slide out of tackles.
The quarterback power and draw are both heavily utilized by the Hokies. Watch this RPO — a quarterback power with a screen look to the boundary.
The right guard was supposed to pull and lead ahead of Bullock off left tackle. The left tackle gets pushed backwards on his down block, which forces the guard to give some ground and slows down the play. Bullock doesn't panic. He waits for the guard to clear the left tackle before he follows him into the hole. Once Bullock commits to the run, he leans inside to set up the guard's block and then bounces slightly back to the outside, placing the guard in between himself and the fitting linebacker. Bullock's size and strength gives him enough power to pick up a handful of extra yards after initial contact.
Bullock is a quarterback prospect that matches Virginia Tech's need well. With three talented, relatively young quarterbacks already in the room, there is little opportunity in Blacksburg for early playing time. Bullock has a solid upside though. With a deep depth chart, Bullock will have the time to work on his passing mechanics before he has an opportunity to win playing time. And even if he isn't destined to become a high-volume runner, his ability to execute the option, make quick decisions, and his natural running ability, make him a good fit for the Hokies' running game. Bullock projects similarly to Josh Jackson, but with much better arm talent.