BLACKSBURG — The careers of Virginia Tech quarterbacks Ryan Willis and Quincy Patterson intersected long before they signed up to be Hokies.
For years, the duo separated by more than 500 miles shared the same quarterback coach, Jeff Christensen, who runs Throw It Deep training academy out Chicago. He continues to work with both of them as they compete alongside Hendon Hooker for Tech’s starting QB job.
Willis spent time working with Christensen during Virginia Tech’s week off for the Fourth of July alongside one of Christensen’s most notable clients, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. Patterson trained with Christensen before returning to campus for summer conditioning at the end of May.
Christensen offers a unique window into Virginia Tech’s quarterback competition having spent countless hours watching Willis and Patterson throw the football.
The former NFL quarterback won’t get into specifics about those recent training sessions — he preaches client confidentiality when asked about what improvements they are looking to make heading into the 2019 season — but he’s more forthcoming discussing why both his students have the mentality to succeed at the highest level.
For Willis, a Midwestern kid who found his way to Blacksburg after transferring out of Kansas, Christensen sees a player who never finds a reason to surrender.
“I see a guy that’s hungry. He has big goals. He respects and appreciates [Virginia Tech head coach Justin] Fuente and [offensive coordinator Brad] Cornelsen immensely,” Christensen said. “He appreciates the opportunity and wants to repay them by playing great. Everybody says they do, but a lot of time the work doesn’t match the words. With him, he really does have a passion and he wants to be a great player.”
Virginia Tech games were appointment television in Christensen’s household last year — he watched every single rep Willis took as Tech’s starter.
When asked about his client’s potential, Christensen emphasized Willis’ body of work. He points to a play the quarterback made out of the end zone with Virginia Tech trailing 19-14 late in the game against North Carolina when discussing Willis’ ability to “make all the throws.”
“He threw an out cut 21 yards on a rope [to Damon Hazelton], a strike and gets the first down to keep going,” Christensen said. “That throw is all you have to see of the entire season to know a guy has it. That’s what makes guys like that fun to coach.”
While Willis periodically called Christensen up during the season, it was rarely to talk about his triumphs like that drive that led to a 22-19 win over the Tar Heels.
“You know he’s a kid that gets it,” Christensen said. “Last year, he fumbled [against Notre Dame] on a third down when he should have just taken a sack and it gave them all the momentum. He threw an interception a couple of weeks later on a third down, but if he completed it, they were still going to have to punt. He would call me and those are the first things he wanted to talk about.”
The work Willis is doing to improve his decision making happens with the team’s coaching staff in Blacksburg, but seeing the quarterback’s work ethic up close has Christensen confident he will play at a higher level in the fall.
“I think he’s got a good future,” Christensen said.
It’s the same thing Christensen thought when he flew out to see Willis workout for the first time in Kansas City when he was a freshman at Kansas. Willis started making trips to Chicago during weekend breaks after Christensen took him on as a client.
When the Jayhawks’ coaching staff wanted to go in a different direction at quarterback — a year removed from Willis setting multiple KU freshman passing records — Willis decided to transfer and sought out advice from Christensen.
According to Christensen, Willis viewed Virginia Tech as a serious contender, but also considered another school that didn’t have as much depth at the position.
“This is where everyone blows it — and I’ve been around the transfer game my whole life — is trying to circumvent depth chart,” Christensen said. “You can try to do that all you want, but what you want is a fair shot and stability.”
With Fuente at the helm and Cornelsen running the offense, Christensen told Willis he would flourish at Virginia Tech regardless of his spot on the depth chart.
“I would want to go to a place where the head coach and quarterbacks coach are good dudes and great teachers of the game,” Christensen said. “They aren’t going to play favorites. They are going to honor the game of football by playing the best player. They aren’t worried if a transfer wins the job or a walk-on.”
It turned out to be pretty good advice.
Elevated to starting quarterback following Josh Jackson’s season-ending injury against Old Dominion in the third week of season, Willis threw for 2,716 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2018, while completing 58% of his pass attempts.
Willis’ play convinced Fuente to have an open competition for the starting job in the spring once again, a decision that caused Jackson to transfer.
In Patterson, Christensen is working with a youngster who still has four seasons of eligibility. He remains a bit of a long shot to start the Hokies opener on Aug. 31 at Boston College. Even then, the redshirt freshman, who only took about 20 snaps and attempted five passes in the 2018 season, will likely get ample opportunities in future seasons.
“His potential is immeasurable, it’s untapped,” Christensen said of Patterson. “It’s how he adapts to the faster game with this big physical body god blessed with him and abilities. When I’ve talked to [Cornelsen], all indications are that they really are happy with where he is at.”
While Christensen is quick to praise Patterson's skill set, his first thoughts when discussing his client have nothing to do with his tremendous arm strength or the 6-foot-4, 236 pounder’s impressive athleticism.
“Kids like him don't come around often,” Christensen said. “He’s just a pure heart. Everybody wants him to succeed because of that and the way his parents raised him. He’s a great, great kid.”
Christensen, who has worked with Patterson since he was in the eighth game, has seen his client’s “magnetic personality” at every stop. At 13, Patterson ”was throwing balls all over the place, but when it came out right you could see he had a chance to be good.” But at that point, he had yet to show the skills that would eventually earn him an invite to the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp.
The Chicago native honed his talent through weekly sessions with Christensen that continued during Patterson’s time at Solorio Academy high school. Those reps proved critical to Patterson’s development as he ran the offense for a team that preferred to keep the ball on the ground.
“We probably passed the ball 70 times all my senior year,” Patterson said last spring. “But I’ve had countless training hours, a bunch of film workouts and stuff. So I don’t think you can really hold that against me just because my school wasn’t a passing school. But I’ve done the things outside of school to make sure that I’m basically good enough to do it at this level and stuff like that.”
Christiansen’s time with Patterson now is limited to when Virginia Tech is on break, but the improvements he has made since joining the Hokies are obvious. For fans clamoring to see Patterson put those talents on display, Christensen echoes Fuente in stressing patience.
“These kids are all pretty good throwing the ball against air or during workouts at that level,” Christiansen said. “But the bottom line is what happens when you have to get under center against a Miami defense that has four guys on the field that run a sub 4.5 [40-yard dash] and the game gets fast.”
Christensen doesn’t know how Virginia Tech’s quarterback competition is going to turn out, but additional development time isn’t a negative. He’s unsure Mahomes’ MVP season would have been possible if it wasn’t for the year he spent on the bench learning from former Chiefs starter Alex Smith.
Patterson didn’t get much of an opportunity to let loose in the spring game, going 4 of 13 for 42 yards with a touchdown. He also carried the ball 15 times for 23 yards.
“Does he have the skill set to make the proper adjustments based on the size and speed of the game going forward? Absolutely,” Christensen said. “Will he? I think he will. Does he have the work ethic, intelligence and coachability to do so? I go back to Justin [Fuente] and Brad [Cornelsen], but all indications are he does and he has the skill set to be a great player.”