BLACKSBURG — Council Bluffs, Iowa, is only a little over an hour from Lincoln, Nebraska, but from a football perspective they’re two different worlds.
The former , home of Iowa Western Community College, was A.J. Bush’s refuge when things didn’t work out at the latter, home of the University of Nebraska, where the quarterback decided last fall his hopes of making headway on the Cornhuskers’ depth chart weren’t promising.
To say going from a college football heavyweight to the junior college ranks was a humbling experience is underselling it. The amenities just weren’t the same. No longer did Bush have open access to the coach’s office to watch film on a big projector, nor could he throw in a plush indoor facility anytime he wanted.
But things especially came into focus when, early in his time with Iowa Western, he sought out the equipment manager to ask for a pair of socks.
“They’re like, ‘You have to go to Dick’s [Sporting Goods],’” Bush said. “It kind of hit: I’m back in high school, basically. … Just going to JUCO from [Nebraska] was just real humbling experience, but it’s also a blessing in disguise I feel like.”
Bush, who’s part of a three-man quarterback competition at Virginia Tech with Josh Jackson and Hendon Hooker, hopes that rough road he took leads to a starting gig at the Division I level, just like he’d envisioned when he first left Georgia as a high schooler for Nebraska.
By all accounts, the 6-foot-4, 219-pound lefty isn’t holding anything back now that he’s in Blacksburg.
“He knows the urgency,” Hokies offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said earlier this offseason. “He knows this is kind of his last shot. And he’s not wasting any time.”
Junior college quarterbacks aren’t new to this coaching staff or to Virginia Tech. Last year Jerod Evans came to Blacksburg from Trinity Valley Community College in Texas and put together one of the best single seasons in Hokies history.
Evans’ much-scrutinized decision to enter the NFL Draft in the winter left the Hokies in a bind, though. Virginia Tech entered the transfer market late, limited in options by time but also by the type of player head coach Justin Fuente sought — one who would supplement, not squash, the growth of the up-and-coming quarterbacks in the room.
The pursuit led him to make calls to Arizona and private quarterback coach Dennis Gile, who’d worked with just that kind of player in Bush.
“Super infectious,” Gile said. “Just a smiling, happy-go-lucky type kid. Never been down by any situation whenever I’ve been around him. Not one time. Never.
“He’s a real competitor who wants to compete and play against the best. That’s something that not a lot of kids have. … He wants to play Alabama. And I think that says something about how fierce of a competitor he is. Nothing bothers him.”
Considering the way the previous couple of years went for him, that’s a tough thing to pull off. Bush wasn’t a heralded recruit coming out of Norcross High in Alpharetta, Georgia, where he helped his school win a 6A title. A two-star prospect, per Rivals, he picked Nebraska three days before signing day in 2014, hoping to eventually succeed Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the starting quarterback.
Circumstances changed, however. Coach Bo Pelini was fired after the 2014 season, with Mike Riley succeeding him. Something didn’t click between the new offensive coaches and Bush, who sat his first two years, then found himself competing for the No. 3 job last fall, with more contenders for the future starting job coming up the ranks.
“When I was at Nebraska we had playbook tests,” Bush said. “I would get A’s, the highest grade of every quarterback. I put all that work in to realize the writing on the wall — I’m going to have to do something different.”
Bush left abruptly last August, joining the highly respected but obscure JUCO program Iowa Western only days before its first scrimmage. He didn’t tear it up there, either.
The Reivers had a returning starting quarterback, and Bush lacked time to learn the playbook fully, leading to a stat line — 602 passing yards on 45 percent passing, with three touchdowns and eight interceptions, in addition to 285 rushing yards and five more scores — that didn’t jump off the page.
“Numbers weren’t great, but at the end of the day I know what I’m capable of,” Bush said. “I know with my talents and the right coaching and the weapons around me like I have that we can be special.”
Bush, who first worked with Gile after his sophomore year, went back to Arizona to train with the quarterback coach following the season. Texas A&M showed some interest but didn’t have a scholarship available until the fall. Then Virginia Tech came calling, with an intriguing opportunity.
“I’ve seen what Coach Fuente and his staff did at Memphis … with Paxton Lynch,” Bush said. “I didn’t even really realize it was him until he called me. … And I’m like, man, this is kind of special.”
Gile, who has worked with a long line of quarterbacks, including crossing paths with former Tech QB Tyrod Taylor in the offseason after Taylor signed with the Buffalo Bills, thinks the Hokies are a good fit for Bush.
“I think his weakness is just repetition,” Gile said. “I think he needs to get reps. And I think his strength is his ability to make plays with his arms and his legs. And not only that, he’s a pretty smart kid. So he’s got three dynamics to his game that are really high-end type quarterback stuff.”
Where Nebraska’s offense had more emphasis on getting through passing progressions rather than running the ball, Bush was struck by how much Fuente’s system includes the threat of running in that repertoire.
“The biggest thing with that was just realizing my strengths,” Bush said. “I can run, I can pass. I’m just as comfortable with my arm and my legs, and this offense gives you with that. With the schemes, if one guy makes a mistake and leaves the box, I’m there. You go two-high, I can take it with my legs on a draw and take it to the crib.”
More than anything, though, Bush is simply happy to get another chance at being a Division I starter, an opportunity he’s not letting pass by. He was part of the leadership council Fuente convened in the offseason, then made an impression by earning one of the team’s hard hats for his effort in the conditioning program.
“It’s a blessing,” Bush said, who said he hasn’t had a bad day yet in Blacksburg. “Of course I came here to play. I wouldn’t be at this level if I wasn’t trying to play. I just see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s an opportunity to go get it. Just no time to waste.”