Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Scout team to 2nd string? Mark Leal making case for Hokies

BLACKSBURG -- Mark Leal began this spring fifth on the Virginia Tech quarterback depth chart. The rankings went Logan Thomas, Ju-Ju Clayton, Ricardo Young, Trey Gresh, then him.

Now he'll head into fall practice as a strong contender for the No. 2 job.

In some ways, that has to be nettlesome for the Hokies. The natural progression of things would have the redshirt junior Clayton -- who this time last year was dueling with Thomas for the No. 2 spot behind Tyrod Taylor -- seizing that job with brilliant play.

It hasn't happened.

Clayton's 3-for-10, two-pick, four-sack performance in Saturday's spring game capped a rough closing stretch for him. In Tech's final three scrimmages including Saturday, he combined to complete 11 of 32 passes for 73 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions, numbers that suggest he's regressing rather than taking command.

Still, he'll go into the fall very much in the mix. Perhaps even the leader.

The other three quarterbacks behind Thomas all are redshirt freshman, so he's by far the most experienced of the group.

"He's very knowledgeable," head coach Frank Beamer said of Clayton. "I think he can go in there and win a game for us."

Leal, meanwhile, is trying to prove he can do the same. While his numbers on Saturday (3-for-6, 34 yards, no touchdowns, no picks) won't stagger you, he's made a strong charge over the past few weeks.

During the same span where Clayton put up his unsightly stats, Leal was 14-for-20 for 239 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"I've been impressed with him," Beamer said.

But experience is so vital at that position, and Leal simply doesn't have it. He spent his redshirt year running the scout team offense. That meant he learned more about other teams' offenses than he did Tech's, which is why he began the spring at the bottom.

Still, he had his eye on the backup spot all along.

"That was my goal," Leal said. "I wasn't sure how it was going to pan out at the end, but I just worked hard and tried to learn the playbook as quick as I can, because everybody had at least one spring ahead of me. When you're in the meetings and stuff, that's pretty much for me, because we were just going over what they already knew but I didn't know. I just came out and competed and tried to push myself up the depth chart."

He passed Gresh, a walk-on from Blacksburg High School, then started getting action with the No. 2 offense after Young was lost for the spring with a foot injury (Young should be ready to re-enter the competition in fall practice).

"You never want to see a teammate go down," Leal said. "But at the same time, as soon as he went down, coach [Mike] O'Cain said, 'Reps are coming your way. Take advantage of this.' I knew that's exactly what I had to do."

And he did, competing well against the first-team defense. That experience came in handy on Saturday, when eight defensive starters were assigned to Thomas' Maroon team while Clayton and Leal played for White.

Leal was sacked three times, but he didn't make any major mistakes. In this current competition, that qualifies as good.

"As of now, I've come some ways, but I still have a ways to go," Leal said. "It's just the spring. They don't throw everything at you; it's little by little. Come summertime, it's back to learning again."

And learning quickly. Because if Thomas goes out for any reason, he just might be the guy.

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