Kyle Vantrease is cerebral and composed, while Dominic Johnson brings athleticism and size. Matt Myers exhibits a strong arm and accuracy.
Less than two weeks into preseason practices, Vantrease, Johnson and Myers continue the competition to become the University at Buffalo football team’s starting quarterback. The Bulls open the season Aug. 29 against Robert Morris at UB Stadium, but fifth-year coach Lance Leipold likely won’t name a starter until the conclusion of the preseason.
However, Leipold knows what will set a No. 1 quarterback apart from the others.
“Who’s, overall, going to be the one that gives us a chance to be successful, not just in the short term, but through the course of the year?” Leipold said.
Experience doesn’t give any of the three candidates much of an edge. Vantrease, Johnson and Myers have combined to play in 11 games in the last three seasons.
But their high school coaches provided The News with insight on each player, including what will give each one an edge in becoming UB’s starting quarterback.
Vantrease: A studious presence
Vantrease has been a student of football, from when he was in seventh grade and trying to understand the game, to his first two years at UB. Vantrease made a point to watch former UB quarterback Tyree Jackson and absorb what made him into one of the program’s most prolific passers.
“How he attacks every day, on the field and off the field, was huge for me this last year,” Vantrease, a redshirt sophomore, said at the start of preseason practices. “To see what his results were and how successful we were, that’s huge.”
Vantrease has 375 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-66 attempts, with two touchdowns and two interceptions in six games, including one start in 2017.
“Kyle is a guy who doesn’t get rattled,” Leipold said. “He’s very calm. He’s a confident leader. He’s improved his throwing and his arm’s gotten stronger. He’s changed his body a little bit, that way.”
But the psychological part of football is what distinguishes Vantrease, said Mark Nori, Vantrease’s coach at Stow-Munroe Falls High School in northeast Ohio.
“Our offense was designed to give him the autonomy to make decisions on the field,” said Nori, who is now the head football coach at Olentangy Berlin High School in Delaware, Ohio. “We did things that we might not ask others, with Kyle. We’d give him plays with different options, and he always knew the best option. We’d call a play and he didn’t have to make the main play call. If he thought he could get us into something different, and he knew the situation, the down and the time, he could do that.
“That came with years of studying the game, and hard work.”
Johnson: A Canadian import
Johnson doesn’t have a traditional quarterback background. He grew up playing basketball and 7-on-7 football in Windsor, Ont., but his primary focus was on basketball at Catholic Central High School. He’s 6-foot-6 and walked onto the UB basketball team in 2017, but with a quarterback competition looming this fall, he focused on football this spring.
“That really helped me get in reps, from the start to the end,” Johnson said at the start of preseason practices. “The guys have more trust in me. I feel like those reps, taken with some of the guys the first time, when I was in basketball season, I came back and wasn’t as comfortable with them.”
The junior, Leipold said, is a natural leader who knows the offense.
“He’s a big-bodied guy,” Leipold said. “He’s got a good arm, and he can do some things.”
Johnson was one of UB’s last verbal commitments in its 2016 freshman class, and was offered a scholarship a week before National Signing Day that year. UB’s coaches liked his size and his raw athleticism.
“When he got to UB, he had a lot to learn,” said Dan Lumley, a former Kentucky quarterback who coached Johnson in 7-on-7 football in Windsor. “He needed a couple years of just learning the game, learning how to practice and to be a college football player. He’s starting to hit his stride.”
Johnson played in four games in his first two years at UB. He had to maximize the reps he was given in practice, and, like Vantrease, he made a point to absorb what he learned about being a quarterback in an FBS program.
“Learning while you’re practicing, and taking all those reps in, that’s all you can do when you’re not a starter,” Lumley said. “You have to make every rep count and you have to find opportunities to develop your skills and learn from the other guys.”
Myers: A local product
When Myers joined the West Seneca West varsity football team in the summer of 2017 after two years at Bishop Timon-St. Jude, Indians coach Mike Vastola saw Myers flourish in a program that incorporated college-level passing concepts into its offense.
A season after passing for 1,342 yards at Timon in 2016, Myers became an All-Western New York and all-state player who passed for 2,397 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2017 at West.
Myers became the newcomer again when he joined the Bulls last summer as a true freshman and while he wasn’t in the spotlight, he prepared as if he was playing to be a starter.
“You never know when your number’s going to be called, so you want to be ready,” said Myers, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman who played in one game in 2018. “It kept me on my toes a little bit, because you never know when that’s going to happen. You have to prepare like you’re the starter, no matter where you are on the depth chart.”
Leipold sees Myers as someone with the ability to be an effective, mobile and physical quarterback at UB.
“He’s got an excellent release, gets the ball out and has great velocity,” Leipold said. “He has to keep working on the experience factor, of everything he sees, in being consistent, continuing to be a vocal leader.”
But it’s going to take more than flashy numbers and athleticism to become a starting quarterback at UB. For Myers to do that, learning UB’s playbook will be key.
“It comes down to knowing the playbook so well that you can get the offense in a good position to avoid negative plays,” Vastola said. “Making decisions on the field and managing protections. It’s the hardest position in the sport for a reason. Now, it’s about getting him reps and him getting comfortable, and doing things that way every time. And he understands that process.”