Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies have confidence in backup QB Leal

BLACKSBURG - Mark Leal's ideal vision lacks only one thing: an opponent.

Everything else is there, and he can see it clearly. The field. The crowd. The teammates. The scenario.

"My dream?" Leal says. "It looks like [this]: I'm coming in, last couple minutes, got to drive down the field."

He pauses.

"And you throw that winning touchdown."


The reason there's no opponent? Well, Leal's a classy guy. He'd prefer not to prophesize a teammate's demise quite that specifically.

As the backup quarterback at Virginia Tech, a place where the starter is expected to contend for conference player of the year honors, Leal knows he must keep his vision fluid. He's aware that there might be no chance to live it this year.

But what if he does get the chance? Would he be ready? That's the question the Hokies have had to ask themselves - and they like the answer.

"We've got a lot of confidence in that guy," coach Frank Beamer said. "He's been around. He knows what's going on. You're talking about a really quality backup. We're fortunate there."

As durable, tough and celebrated as starter Logan Thomas is, this is a brutal game. The cover of the Sept. 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine poses the question: "Is Football on the Edge of Extinction?" You probably know why they're asking it (hint: it's not because people aren't making money).

Thomas started all 14 games last year, and he plans to do it again. Tech's coaches have no intention of limiting his running in games. Sure, they want him to be smart - go down if the play is over, head out of bounds if you've gotten all the yardage you can - but they don't want to plant a seed of indecision in his mind.

Part of the reason they can do this is because they have Leal, the 6-foot, 212-pound redshirt sophomore out of Florida, ready to contribute if needed.

"I think Mark Leal is prepared to go in a game and have success," offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. "I do believe that. I think this coaching staff believes that and, more importantly, I think the guys that are going to go out on the field with him believe that."

Leal was the No. 2 quarterback last year, too. He got into three games for a total of 36 snaps - all of them in blowouts.

He went 3 for 4 for 40 yards in the fourth quarter of Tech's 38-0 victory over Virginia, describing his responsibility as "just, you know, to stick the dagger in."

He threw two touchdown passes in his debut in the opener against Appalachian State.

He took three snaps at Marshall and did not attempt a pass.

Consider that insignificant action if you want, but it mattered to him.

"It's very big," Leal said. "That's pretty much game speed, everything's live, you're not going against your own team. You're going against everybody else.

"Even though it's garbage time, you get those nerves out. You get that game experience and learn how it feels."

That experience became even more important this spring, when Leal was limited because of a "pretty nasty" respiratory infection. He found himself short of breath from the time he woke up until the time he went to sleep. Doctors prescribed him antibiotics and told him to take it easy, bequeathing most of the second-string snaps to No. 3 QB Trey Gresh.

Despite that setback, Leal feels more mentally prepared than he's ever been. His coaches see it, too.

"I was very comfortable with him playing last year had we needed to," quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain said. "He's got a live arm. He's got - a term I like to use - savvy."

And he's got a vision. Victim to be determined.

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