Does It Matter Who Plays QB Under Justin Fuente?
On December 17th, now former Virginia Tech starting QB (and current Tennessee Volunteer) Hendon Hooker announced his decision to enter the transfer portal, resulting in yet another wave of reactions such as:
● Justin Fuente doesn't know how to manage his quarterbacks
● Justin Fuente isn't the QB "whisperer" (whatever that means) we've been led to believe
Both of which furthered the ongoing list of indictments against the Justin Fuente era.
But personally, my reaction was a bit different in that, instead of worrying about how things beyond my control, I wanted to understand a little more about the QB position, particularly as it pertains to Justin Fuente's offense, in hopes to answer one very simple question:
Does it matter who plays QB under Justin Fuente?
Now it may sound foolish to question the importance of the QB position, especially when you consider some of the former Tech greats such as Michael Vick and Tyrod Taylor, just to name a few, who were multi-year franchise-type starting quarterbacks throughout the Frank Beamer era.
The question also wasn't meant to belittle those that have played under Justin Fuente, nor does it seek to defend the head coach's quarterback management over the last five years.
The goal was to simply examine the stats on the QB's level of performance, regardless of who played the position under Fuente.
So to sort everything out, the following questions seemed relevant to help find the answer:
● Which QB metrics (passing, running, or both) actually correlate to winning?
● In the modern era, how have VT quarterbacks performed against those same metrics?
● Are there any abnormalities in the numbers that would impact Hendon Hooker's decision to transfer?
The concept for asking these questions is simple: if you assess that Virginia Tech's best seasons occurred when the QB has performed up to or above par among each key passing metric that correlates to winning, then you can better understand if the QB position under Justin Fuente is more a result of the scheme, the player, or a little bit of both, and ultimately decide whether it was in Hendon Hooker's best interest to transfer.
And with that in mind, let's get started.
Part One – Which QB metrics correlate to winning?
First things first, and I can't emphasize this enough, correlation does NOT equal causation, meaning the metrics discussed in this section do NOT equate directly to a winning result, but rather they are tied to the increased likelihood of a winning outcome.
Sound good? OK, moving on.
In the search for which passing metrics equate to winning, the biggest surprise was actually just how little peer review there was regarding advanced stats that relate to winning, especially for college football, at least not behind a paywall, so for the sake of this article, I mainly stuck to the following open source databases:
Anyways, back to the numbers.
After a bit of a deep dive, this article seemed to provide a sufficient analysis of which passing metrics best represent the highest correlation to winning (and I would encourage any stat nerds out there to take a quick read), as it applied a hefty sample size of all NFL quarterbacks that started more than 14 games from 1990-2011 and did a solid job of explaining the theory of why the correlations make sense. To summarize, it showed that the two metrics with the strongest positive correlation to winning (coefficient >0.50), were:
● ANY/A1 – Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt
● Passer Rating
Quick tangent. As a Tech grad, I realize there is probably a wide array of mathematical expertise among the readers, so I will do my best to work with the laymen. Also, a coefficient >0.50 when measuring the correlation between two statistics implies a mild to a moderately strong association, i.e. the better performance a QB performs in the ANY/A1 and Passer Rating metrics, the more likely the team won the game.
So why are these the best indicators of a QB's passing performance and its impact on winning? Because each uses a blend of categories, adjusted for outcomes (both positive and negative) that increase the metric for positive outcomes such as Touchdowns and Completions while simultaneously decreasing the metric for negative outcomes such as Interceptions and Sacks.
Also, if you are on a good team, then you are likely playing with a lead, meaning the play of the QB is more reliant on helping extend offensive drives, score points, and avoid turnovers. If that type of performance is consistent enough over a full season, then those QBs who perform the best in these metrics will not only rise to the top, but their teams likely have a good record too.
Lastly, and most importantly, although there are many elements to a team's game-day performance that lead to a winning result, NONE are as significant as the QB's performance. It is THE most important position on the field and throughout the season, an elite QB can help cover a struggling defense, but it is significantly harder to have an elite defense cover for a struggling QB.
Now there are exceptions to that statement, but it is still very much the rule.
Alright, once again, back to the numbers.
Metric #1 – Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt
As an equation, ANY/A1 is the product of:
(Total Passing Yards + Weighted Touchdowns – Weighted Interceptions + Sack Yards Lost) / (Total Pass Attempts + Sacks)
Or simply put, it reflects the number of good quarterback results versus the number of poor quarterback results for every passing attempt.
Now that we understand the metric, how is it reflected among the nation's best passers?
Well, for starters, a little more than a decade ago, it was unheard of to have more than 1 or 2 players eclipse the 10.0 benchmark for Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (for example, the three in 2010 were, in order: Cam Newton – 11.2, Kellen Moore – 11.2, and Greg McElroy – 10.1, not a bad group huh? Oh, and the next one on that list… Andy Dalton – 9.9… Whoever coached that guy must have known how to get the most from his QBs.)
Fast forward ten years to 2019 (which had the most eligible quarterbacks), the highest mark went to Joe Burrow with a 12.5 ANY/A1, and the list of QBs higher than the 10.0 mark jumped to six, or double the amount from 2010. However, the bulk of the group at or near the Top 20 in college football still managed to fall around a 9.0 ANY/A1, which for me means, that seems to be the benchmark of an above-average season where the result of achieving that metric, meant the team had a higher chance of winning.
Metric #2 – Passer Rating
As for the second-highest correlated metric, the formula is as follows:
(Weighted Passing Yards + Weighted Touchdowns + Weighted Completions – Weighted Interceptions) / Total Passing Attempts
Or, once again, it's another way to reflect the number of good quarterback results versus the number of bad quarterback results for every passing attempt.
When applying passer rating to the same years, the same names bubble towards the top, which in 2010 equated to the following top three quarterbacks: Kellen Moore – 182.6, Cam Newton – 182.0, and Andrew Luck – 170.2 (cough, Andy Dalton was 5th at 166.5, cough). Also, a rating of 170.0 was what separated the top three from the pack, leaving a mark of 160.0+ as an above-par passer rating.
The same metric applied ten years later in 2019 yielded the same top names once again among eligible quarterbacks with Joe Burrow alone at the top posting a ridiculous 202.0; however, six quarterbacks fell above the 170.0 Passer Rating threshold with the rest of the top 10 being just above 160.0.
So what does this all mean?
The game in terms of Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and Passer Rating is being stretched further among the truly elite passers; however, the above-par averages for each metric (9.0+ for ANY/A1 and 160.0+ for Passer Rating) still separates the perennial Top 10-20 QBs from the rest of the pack in terms of passing AND winning.
Don't believe me?
In the last decade, only 83 quarterbacks achieved both a 9.0+ ANY/A1 and a 160.0+ Passer Rating in the same season. Of those 83 QBs, only ONE had a below .500 season… UMass QB Ross Comis (10.0 & 161.4). For the remaining 82 QBs that achieved those combined passing metrics, the average win total per QB was 10.6
(BTW, the eligible QBs were spread out among the traditional Power 5 "blue blood" programs all the way down to the lower level Group of 5 teams for those thinking that only the best teams have QBs that can achieve the 9.0/160.0 benchmark).
The final takeaway?… Those passing metrics matter. Now is it possible to have a successful season without a QB averaging 9.0/160.0? Sure. However, the margin of error for the rest of the team to compensate for a less than stellar QB performance is diminished.
Part Two – Over the few decades, how have VT quarterbacks performed against those same metrics?
Now the fun analysis begins, but first, some ground rules.
Only VT quarterbacks dating back to the 1995 season were included since:
● There were 123 total QBs available to review in the VT database
● Of those 123 QBs, 74 hadn't attempted greater than 50 passes to be eligible for this review
● Of those remaining 49, 25 QBs had less than a 6.0 ANY/A1 passing average
● Of the remaining 25, 20 played from 1995 onward
● To be honest, Virginia Tech was only nationally relevant starting in 1995
Also, the below charts are for each QB's career average, not per single season (we'll get to that later), since I first wanted to know how well each QB performed during their entire time playing at VT overall.
You know, that whole QB development thing.
The results? See for yourself:
Metric #1 – Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt
Metric #2 – Passer Rating
VT has never had a QB achieve the combined career average benchmark of 9.0+ ANY/A1 and 160.0+ Passer Rating.
QBs coached by Justin Fuente (with Hendon Hooker at the top) have combined career averages well represented at the top of each list, with only Michael Vick (the best QB in Tech history), as the sole Beamer era representative in the Top 5 for each metric.
While it's tough to compare eras, considering the advancement of passing offenses in the modern game versus those of 20+ years ago, there does seem to be some consistency in Justin Fuente's offense that maximizes these two QB metrics, regardless of the player's capacity to excel in either statistic.
So what does that mean?
That not all QBs are created equal in their capabilities to play the position BUT, in the Justin Fuente offense, a mediocre QB is likely to do better in these two advanced passing metrics (which CORRELATE to winning, not CAUSE), meaning that Justin Fuente's scheme recognizes the value of these metrics in creating opportunities to win football games.
The last question then becomes, how have the single-season Tech QB performances correlated to their team's final record?
Well, here you go:
Filtering the last 25 seasons by each QB's best single-season ANY/A1, some interesting patterns emerged (highlighted).
● Green – The best ANY/A1 seasons (>8.5) all correlated to mostly double-digit winning seasons, with most of them having defenses ranked outside the Top 10.
● Yellow – The below-average ANY/A1 seasons (<8.0) correlated with the lowest winning records, especially when Tech didn't have a Top 10 defense.
● Blue - The ONE time in Tech history with a QB (Michael Vick) exceeding the combined passing metric threshold of 9.0/160.0, in addition to a Top 5 defense, VT went to the National Championship… These outcomes aren't coincidental.
● It's possible to have 10+ win seasons with a poor performing QB; however, that team probably needs the help of an elite defense.
● It's possible (but not likely) to have a 10+ win season with a poor performing QB and a defense that underperforms; however, the one time that happened, the QB's name was Michael Vick during the 2000 season.
● It's possible (and more likely) that a team will have a 10+ win season with a QB performing well in each metric, regardless of the defense's rank.
● Great seasons occur when QBs perform well in each metric with elite defenses… duh.
Part Three – Are there any abnormalities in the numbers that would impact Hendon Hooker's decision to transfer?
Now that we have established the importance of advanced passing metrics, their correlation to winning, and the historical performance of Virginia Tech quarterbacks among those metrics, the final question (and the most important one) seems to be…
Why would Hendon Hooker, who had the highest career passing averages as a QB under Justin Fuente (and in VT history) as per the advanced stats, opt to transfer?
Well, to answer that loaded question, the only thing that I could do was to look at his numbers in comparison to the field to find any abnormalities, which after an extensive review, there was really only one noticeable number that stood out… Rushing Attempts.
The concept of the "Dual-Threat" quarterback should be one all too familiar among the Virginia Tech fan base, considering since the days of Michael Vick, the Hokie football team has had some version of a mobile QB leading the offense over the last 20 years.
So going back to the same list of QBs, it made sense to also review their rushing numbers to help get a sense of how much emphasis was put on their ability to run the football.
But first, some further ground rules had to be established considering:
● 5 of the 20 QBs had less than 100 rushing attempts
● 3 of the 20 QBs had a net negative yards rushing
Given the above caveats, the list of 20 shrank to 12 eligible QBs of which, the results (filtered by Total Attempts) were as follows:
At first glance, the most surprising part of that list, at least to me, was just how high Hendon Hooker ended up in Total Rushing Attempts considering he only started 15 games, albeit, spread out over two seasons. So to put it into a better perspective, I added a Rushing Attempts per Game column to the list to help provide a bit more clarity:
As it turns out, Hendon Hooker has averaged the HIGHEST amount of rushing attempts per game than any quarterback in the Virginia Tech modern era, even more than Logan Thomas, who for all intents and purposes was a 6'6 250lb battering ram for three full seasons, as well as Tyrod "T-Mobile" Taylor and Michael Vick, who were both human highlight reels.
Heck, even Ryan Willis averaged more Rushing Attempts per Game than Bryan Randall which, surprisingly, was only the second most surprising thing on that list.
So why is this significant?
Because the relatively high volume of Rushing Attempts for QBs in the Justin Fuente offense instantly reminded me of a quote from Jerod Evans (who had the second-most attempts on that list) in a Sports Illustrated All Hokies article describing his decision to depart the program following the 2016 season in pursuit of a career in the NFL:
I was running around 20-plus times a game. I was physically worn out. I actually stopped practicing for a while. I wouldn't practice until like Wednesday or Thursday every week. That was kind of like my schedule.
Now it's important to remember that this quote from Jerod Evans was NOT the reason he left, as he even stated in the same article that before the season began, his goal was to be a "one-and-done", but rather, it helps provide the insight on just how MUCH of a physical (and mental) toll that a high volume of Rushing Attempts has on a quarterback.
Factor in that Jerod Evans was also listed at 6'3 238lbs in comparison to Hendon Hooker at 6'4 228lbs (taller and skinnier), it implies that Evans was probably better suited physically to absorb a higher Rushing Attempt workload, and yet, he still suffered from several nagging injuries throughout the 2016 season.
Also, neither “Dual-Threat” QB would be what many describe as "elusive", meaning Evans and Hooker probably absorbed a lot more physical punishment than say, Michael Vick or Tyrod Taylor, leading to the next probably unanswerable question:
Was Hendon Hooker's increased Rushing Attempts the product of his on-field decision making, the Justin Fuente offensive scheme, or both… AND, did it factor in his decision to transfer?
I'll leave that question for someone else who knows football a lot better than me but, it definitely seemed important to point out that Hooker excelled in this offense, specifically among those critical passing metrics that correlate to winning while also shouldering a substantially higher rushing workload, which could have proven to be more of a detriment to his physical and mental well-being, especially when you tack on his undisclosed medical issue before the season even began.
And with all of that in mind, back to the original question.
Does it matter who plays QB under Justin Fuente?
Well, given the fact that:
● Tech's current offensive scheme maximizes passing metrics that correlate to winning
● Every Justin Fuente QB has ranked near the top end of each passing metric list, regardless of their capabilities
● Justin Fuente's offensive scheme also emphasizes a high amount of QB rushing attempts, which increases the health risks to each player and is a likely contributor to the level of attrition at the position then...
The relatively high QB turnover rate under Justin Fuente (5 starting QBs in 5 years) is likely the result of a "next man up" type mentality in his offensive scheme, which means that whoever assumes QB1 duties will be optimized in this offense (passing and rushing) until of course, they cannot, in which they will be replaced with someone else of similar capacity that the coaches can also scheme a winning offensive strategy around.
So does it matter?
It doesn't seem so, especially in this offense that over-emphasizes the QB running game, almost to a fault.
But deep down, I wish it did.
Because when VT does have a competent passing QB in this scheme, who can consistently meet the above-described benchmarks without their excessive use in the run game, along with a solid defense, the Hokies have a chance to do something special.
They've done it before.