University at Buffalo football coach Lance Leipold clarified a specific point at the end of his team’s first preseason practice Wednesday morning at UB Stadium.
“We don’t have a starting quarterback yet,” the fifth-year Bulls coach quipped.
However, UB's first preseason practice kicked off a competition between Kyle Vantrease, Dominic Johnson and Matt Myers to replace Tyree Jackson, who vacated the spot in January and signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent.
The Bulls open the season at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 against Robert Morris. There’s no easy way for UB to fill the shoes of Jackson, the 2018 MAC Offensive Player of the Year who threw for nearly 7,000 yards in 32 games at UB. On paper, Vantrease, Johnson and Myers bring a fraction of that experience to the position.
Vantrease, a redshirt sophomore from Stow, Ohio, has thrown for 375 yards and two touchdowns on 29-for-66 passing, and was intercepted twice in six games over the last two seasons. Leipold said Vantrease’s playing experience, though limited, gives him some advantage in the competition.
Johnson, a junior from Windsor, Ont., has played in four games, with only one completion and one interception on two passes for four yards. Yet Johnson’s experience in different atmospheres while playing for UB’s football and basketball teams last year, Leipold said, has helped his maturity.
Myers, a redshirt freshman from West Seneca West, played in one game in 2018. His poise has impressed Leipold.
“They all bring something to the table, and that’s why it’s going to make it a difficult decision,” Leipold said. “But an exciting one.”
Vantrease, Johnson and Myers said they each made an investment in the offseason to prepare for the competition in August.
Vantrease said he improved his strength, watched plenty of film and worked with UB’s wide receivers during the offseason. Johnson threw during the summer, particularly with UB’s junior-college transfer wide receivers. Myers focused on his health and recovering from a hamstring injury that limited him in spring practices.
“Every person brings a different set of skills to the table,” Vantrease said. “Tyree was fast, with a really strong arm, and I’m not saying I don’t have a strong arm, I can get the ball out there.
“But some of his strengths are different than some of my strengths. Same with Dom, and same with Matt. But in our offense, it really doesn’t matter what the strengths are. You’re going to play to those strengths, and every play is a play that’s going to score, and that’s how you attack the play.”
The quarterbacks have to find a level of functionality in UB’s offense, and each faces challenges in pursuit of becoming a starting quarterback.
Myers has to prove himself at the college level, while Vantrease and Johnson aim to improve their leadership qualities.
“When it comes to being a leader of a whole offense, guys are always looking to you for questions,” Johnson said. “I saw Tyree do that last year and that’s the biggest challenge, guys coming to you and being consistent with leadership, all the time.”
When he graduated from West Seneca West in the spring of 2018, Myers didn't think he’d be in a position to compete to become UB’s starting quarterback.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect," said Myers, who was the 2017 Buffalo News football Player of the Year. "I knew Tyree was great when I was coming in here, but I didn’t know what he was going to do. I don’t think anyone could have predicted what he was going to do. Maybe he was going to leave, maybe he was going to stay. But I didn’t see it.”
The quarterbacks' teammates will have a significant role in helping them develop during camp and compete for the starting job.
“We have to keep them comfortable,” running back Kevin Marks said. “The protections, pick up the blitzes and give them time. That relieves some stress off the quarterback so they can throw a good ball and get our receivers open.”
Leipold said he huddled with quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski about 90 minutes before UB began its first practice to discuss regarding what they’re looking for in their starting quarterback.
Leipold said he and his staff will take their time in deciding on the starter, and one off-the-mark throw or one bad practice won’t solely determine a starter.
“I want the quarterbacks to understand that we are going to take our time with it, because there are going to be ups and downs during camp,” Leipold said. “Whether it be a body of work, or each and every one, that will give us our best opportunity.”
Leipold is evaluating all options in choosing a starting quarterback. He’s even open to rotating quarterbacks.
But he emphasizes that he isn’t committed to a deadline or a timetable for choosing a starter.
“I like where this position is at,” Leipold said. “We just have to figure out the order that it’s going to be in.”