Noel vs. Randall: The Debate Continues
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #22

For more than three weeks in the month of August, the Hokie football team practiced nearly every day, sometimes two times a day, spending hours and hours on the practice field. They held four scrimmages. Bryan Randall and Grant Noel threw pass after pass after pass, and the coaching staff observed every play, broke the action down in detail, and tried to determine who the number one quarterback should be: the immobile, ACL-less, but determined and experienced Noel; or the quick, flashy, healthy, but inexperienced Bryan Randall

Meanwhile, Tech fans, the large, large majority of whom never got to see a practice or a scrimmage, waited outside a figurative wall, with no way to see inside, and argued and debated over who should be the starting QB. Hanging on every little word the coaches said, breaking down stats, and trying to read the tea leaves, the fans waited for the beginning of the games, and their chance to analyze the QB play.

Grant Noel entered fall practice as the number one quarterback, but the coaches declared the position to be available to Randall, should he step up and prove himself to be Noel's equal or better.

By all accounts, Randall never did that, and Noel, showing improved passing accuracy and arm strength, remained the number one QB throughout the weeks of fall practice. His knee held up, and he proved equal to Randall's challenge.

Heading into the Arkansas State game, Noel was still listed number one on the depth chart. The long process appeared to be over, but then, in the late afternoon Friday before the Arkansas State game, Tech coach Frank Beamer announced that the two QB's would alternate quarters for the opener.

While Beamer made the obvious point that getting experience for Randall is important, primarily because of Noel's knee and its uncertain status, he also said things like, "In our coaches' minds, this competition is very close," and "I think we've taken away Randall's best asset. Because we've had the quarterbacks in yellow jerseys all summer, Randall hasn't been able to use his athleticism and his feet the way he might under normal game conditions." (Beamerball.com).

The message was clear: this quarterback duel isn't settled yet. Interpret Beamer's comments any way you want, but that's how this writer saw it, and the news was announced with the heading, "The quarterback evaluation continues this weekend."

The Arkansas State game came and went, and Hokie fans got their first public glimpse of the Quarterback Duel That Wouldn't Die. Since Noel only threw five passes and Randall only threw eight before they gave way to Will Hunt for most of the second half, many fans are saying that you can't draw conclusions about what you saw on Sunday, because the two QB's didn't play enough, and the competition was weak.

That's not true. What you saw on Sunday was actually, in my opinion, perfectly representative of how Noel and Randall have practiced and scrimmaged this fall.

Grant Noel

Noel's performance was very short-lived. He was in for just fifteen plays, and he only threw five passes in this game, completing two of them for 24 yards and a TD. He threw one poor third-down pass to Shawn Witten that fell incomplete, and he had two other passes batted down at the line.

His two completions were a five-yarder to fullback Doug Easlick on Tech's first offensive play and a 19-yard touchdown to tight end Jeff King that was nicely thrown. King wasn't even Noel's first option on the play, and King was surprised the ball was thrown his way on just his second-ever play in college football.

Noel's pass wasn't perfect, but it was darn good. It was delivered on time, to the right spot, over the outstretched arms of the closest defender.

Noel has thrown some good-looking passes this fall, including one absolute beauty to Shawn Witten in the final Saturday scrimmage on August 17th. The pass was for a 24-yard TD on a down and out, and Noel threw it as Witten broke his pattern outside. The pass hit Witten dead in the hands after his break, and the defensive back never had a chance. It was, no joke, an "ooh, ahh" type of pass. Practice observers have told this writer that Noel has thrown at least a couple of those types of passes this fall.

His throw to King in the Arkansas State game wasn't quite that good, but it was good.

On the other hand, Noel's one attempt at the option was, of course, weak. He rolled down the line to the right, didn't pitch, and was run down and tackled from behind by ASU's John Bradley, a 285-pound defensive tackle.

That's Grant Noel in a nutshell: an improved passer, in charge of the offense (to the point where he knows where his receivers are and can hit them in stride), but with limited mobility, and nothing special on the option. And there's the question of that knee.

Bryan Randall

Randall had the option and quarterback draw clicking in his first turn running the offense, peeling off runs of 16, 19, and 12 yards, the last of which went for a TD. He looked sharp and fast to the corner when carrying the football, showing great quickness and speed for a player who weighs 225 pounds.

But two of his first three passes were simply awful. On his first attempt, he misread a break by Richard Johnson and threw outside when Johnson went inside. After a short completion to Imoh, Randall started his second possession of the game with his worst pass of the day, a throw to the flat to Justin Hamilton that hit an ASU defensive back, safety Lamar Lee, squarely in the hands. Lee did Randall the favor of dropping the ball, instead of picking it off and returning it for a touchdown.

On the very next play, Randall held the ball in the pocket too long, his head swiveling from one receiver to another. He was hit by a defensive lineman and fumbled away Tech's only turnover of the game.

After that, Randall settled down, eventually ending up 6-of-8 for 66 yards and a TD. Many of his later throws were very nice (except for a bounced pass to Witten on a flanker screen), and he didn't threaten to turn the ball over again after his fumble.

But you can see the rough edges on Randall's play. After his initial 16 yard run, he failed to get back to the huddle and get the next play off in time, causing him to burn a timeout needlessly. His TD pass to Imoh wasn't bad, but it was thrown slightly behind Imoh, and it was thrown a little late.

Many of Randall's passes at this stage of his career are just that: a little too late, a little slow to get to the receiver. It's not a question of arm strength, it's a question of when he delivers the ball. Against Arkansas State, that doesn't mean anything, but against better DB's and better teams, it could add up to an interception as a defender breaks on a late-thrown ball.

One area in which he's got the decided edge on Noel is in the running game, as if we didn't already know that. Randall had 5 carries for 52 yards and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Noel had one carry for minus-2 yards.

When Will Things Get Settled? Who Knows?

What you saw in this game was what the coaches have been looking at all fall. Noel has greatly improved in the passing game, though admittedly, you didn't see that Sunday. He has good control of the offense (though you didn't really get to see that, either, in just fifteen plays). But his knee is an unknown quantity, and he simply isn't a threat as a runner.

As for Randall, he's not as crisp as Noel in running the offense, evidenced by his burned timeout, his miscommunication with Johnson, his near-interception, and his fumble because he held the ball too long. Ironically, some of those mistakes are the same ones Noel made last season, so it's primarily an issue of experience. A pass like the one Randall bounced off of Lamar Lee's hands could be a disaster against a team like LSU or Texas A&M, or any decent team in the Big East. We all know how Frank Beamer hates turnovers, almost to a fault.

Randall sure can motor, though. Yes, it was Arkansas State, they're not fast, yadda-yadda-yadda, but as one message board poster said, "I donít need to see the Hokies against a fast team to know that they're fast." So it is with Randall. He looked fast against Arkansas State because he is fast, not because they were slow.

But after the Hokies' little scrimmage against Arkansas State, the Tech coaching staff doesn't really have more to go on than they did before. The only new thing that happened Sunday was that their suspicion that Randall's legs are a real weapon was confirmed. Unfortunately, he continued to make some of the same mistakes and show some of the same weaknesses he has shown all fall. Not that Noel set the world on fire, with his one bad incompletion and two batted-down passes against a severely overmatched team.

I think this little back-and-forth indecision on Frank Beamer's part is understandable. He likes the way Randall looks peeling off those 15-to-20 yard runs, and then he throws his hands over his eyes when Randall nails a DB in the mitts with a bad pass.

Beamer likes the precision passing he gets from Noel from time to time, like the NFL-caliber laser to Witten in the scrimmage. But he cringes when Noel rumbles down the line on the option and gets pounded from behind by a player who outweighs him by 60 pounds.

What to do? If Beamer didn't hate turnovers so much and was willing to sacrifice a few TO's for a duel-threat QB, this decision would be over, and Randall would be his guy, for better or for worse. But Coach Beamer, who lives by creating turnovers on defense and special teams, is kept up late at night by the thought of his own offense turning the ball over, and he thinks -- and is probably right -- that Noel would do that less often, for now anyway.

Beamer has said that Noel will start for the LSU game, and he and his coaching staff aren't elaborating any further on whether or not Randall will play. That's an old coaching tactic, designed to complicate the preparation by your opponent: if you've got a QB controversy, don't tell the media who's going to play and how much in the upcoming game, particularly if the two QB's have differing styles. LSU's scout team offense now has to imitate two QB's in practice this week, assuming the Tigers do it the way most teams do, with their scout teams mimicking the opponent.

We'll see if Noel is equal to the LSU challenge, because he certainly wasn't equal to the challenge against most of the good defenses he faced last year. If he struggles with LSU's speed on defense, Randall might get the nod early to see what he can do -- and whether he can do it without coughing up the football.

Regardless of what happens, don't be surprised if the QB issue is settled by the time LSU jets out of town Sunday night, whether the Hokies win or lose. If the Tigers are too quick for Noel and he flounders, and Randall comes in and sparks the offense with his run/pass abilities, then Beamer may decide to go with Bryan as his starter the rest of the season.

On the other hand, if Noel rises to the occasion and plays one of his better games, while Randall makes a few key mistakes, maybe even touchdown-costing ones, Beamer's conservative side may take over, and he may go with the senior Noel for the rest of the season.

Or, like the Arkansas State game, it may be a wash, and the debate -- and uncertainty -- may roll on.

 

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