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Backup QBs take center stage when No. 22 Duke faces Hokies

September 27, 2018
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FILE - In this April 14, 2018, file photo, Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis (5) throws while being pursued by defensive lineman Zion Debose (35) during the team' spring NCAA college football in Blacksburg, Va. Call the Virginia Tech-Duke game a battle of the backups. Neither team will have its regular starting quarterback. It could come down to which of the two backups, Quentin Harris of Duke or Ryan Willis of the Hokies, has a better game. (Michael Shroyer/The Roanoke Times via AP, File)

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — This will be a battle of the backups.

When No. 22 Duke plays host to Virginia Tech on Saturday night, neither team will have its regular starting quarterback. That means the game might come down to which backup — Quentin Harris of Duke or Ryan Willis of the Hokies — has a better night.

Harris has more experience this season, having already made two starts in place of the injured Daniel Jones. But Willis, who made 10 starts over two seasons at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech, has more playing time during his career but only took over for the Hokies last week when Josh Jackson broke his fibula.

“That’s the benefit of having a backup with a little bit of experience,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said.

Both one-time backups seem ready for the spotlight that comes with starting a significant game at the sport’s most important position.

“I think practice reps can only get you so much and teach you so much,” Harris said. “When there’s high stakes, you definitely kind of elevate your level of play. So getting those in-game reps, I believe, is invaluable.

“And it really helps just getting those reps to kind of continue to see defenses,” he added. “Things slow down a little bit more for you, too. Just getting those reps, week in and week out, has kind of slowed the game down a little bit for me, and that’s made my reads a little bit easier and (made him) more confident in my reads and just more confident executing the offense.”

The Blue Devils (4-0) haven’t really changed what they do since Jones broke his clavicle in the second half of a win at Northwestern in Week 2, because both of their quarterbacks have the ability to run and throw.

Jones, at 6-foot-5, has the frame of a prototypical pocket passer but is capable of running the ball, while running seems to come more easily to Harris, who’d been a short-yardage specialist during his first two seasons before throwing three touchdown passes in each of his two starts.

Meanwhile for the Hokies (2-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), Willis has thrown for 2,725 yards and completed 54.5 percent of his passes during his career, but 16 of the 18 games he’s played came at Kansas — where he played in only one victory in two years.

“I’m in my fourth year of college football. You learn a few things along the way,” Willis said. “I feel a lot more confident going into games now. I feel like I’m under control. I know what’s going on. I know what looks they’re giving me.”

Willis will try to replace the production of Jackson, who set program record for freshmen by throwing for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2017 but was carted off the field last week following a 19-yard run.

“Now, we’ll have to handle the whole game plan in the week as the starter,” Fuente said of Willis. “He’s prepared, and he’ll be ready and we’ll try to build it around him and try to give ourselves a chance to have success. ... He’s competitive and he’s been training and working for this opportunity and it’s up to everyone else to step up their game as well and help him out and support him.”

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AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Virginia contributed to this report.

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