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Tech's Leal, no longer fans' fave, determined to be QB

BLACKSBURG

Mark Leal knew the love was fleeting... which is why he never paid it much attention.

Whenever Logan Thomas made a mistake last year, an extremely vocal segment of Virginia Tech fans was sure to increase its calls for Leal to get his chance to play. An irrational love for the backup quarterback is an ever-present trait among football fans everywhere.

"I'm sure whoever the next quarterback is, they're going to love him as well, and whenever he's doing bad, 'Well, put the backup in,' " Leal said. "That's just how it always is."

Leal's finding that out before ever starting a game. The fifth-year senior, the primary backup the last three years and the most experienced quarterback on the roster when the Hokies begin spring drills in 2-1/2 weeks, will have to earn his standing as the player to beat in the race to be Thomas' successor.

A sub-par performance in the Sun Bowl, when he came in after Thomas was hurt, took some of the shine off of the 6-foot, 217-pound Leal's potential.

With that new-car smell gone, many fans have already moved on to incoming Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer or early freshman enrollee Andrew Ford as their preferred heir apparent, despite the offseason battle not yet beginning in earnest.

"I still have to separate myself," said Leal, who has been labeled the front-runner in this spring's wide-open competition if for no other reason than his age. "Nothing is set in stone, so I'm just trying to put in as much work as I can."

The Sun Bowl hammered home that point. Leal was thrust into action in the second quarter when Thomas, who had never missed even a snap, left the game after suffering a concussion following a high hit by UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt.

Things spiraled out of control in the fourth quarter, when Leal threw two interceptions - one of them returned for a backbreaking touchdown - as UCLA routed the Hokies 42-12.

Leal finished 12-for-25 for 130 yards and the two picks. It was more passes than he had thrown in his college career to that point, yet the coaches didn't cut him any slack.

Head coach Frank Beamer was surprisingly blunt afterward about Leal's lacking performance. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler echoed those thoughts recently, although he sees it as a fork-in-the-road moment.

"The negative was that he didn't pay well," Loeffler said. "The negative was that in all actuality, he played slow. Decision-making was an issue; decisiveness was an issue. Now from a positive... he got to experience how prepared you have to be to play well.

"And to be quite honest with you, either one of two things are going to happen this year. Either we're going to look back a year from now and say that that was the best thing that ever happened to him or you're going to look back and say that guy never learned from what happened to him."

None of this is news to Leal, who has heard the same message. Something Loeffler said to him after the Sun Bowl raised his spirits: All the great quarterbacks he's been around have fallen on their face pretty hard before they started to become great.

"I think that game can really be a blessing in disguise for me," Leal said. "Like I said, it just really, really showed me how well you have to prepare, all the little details that count. I'm just glad that it happened when it did rather than going into the season and then that happening to me."

It's driven his offseason work and will continue to in the spring, when he has a prime opportunity to make a statement in the race.

Brewer, his presumed top competition, won't arrive at Tech until after spring drills.

Leal understands the Hokies' decision to bring in a transfer - "The last game anyone has ever seen me play was a bad one," he said - but he also knows this is the moment he's been waiting for.

He's been a loyal Virginia Tech fan since watching Michael Vick and the Hokies take on Florida State in the BCS title game on his 8th birthday.

Growing up in an Army family, he moved around, from Germany to El Paso, Texas, to Arizona and finally Delray Beach, Fla., for high school, where he was an early commitment out of Atlantic High in the Hokies' 2010 class.

He turned down overtures to go elsewhere in the recruiting process, calling Virginia Tech his "dream school," and squashed any thought of transferring once in Blacksburg, even though it crossed his mind.

"I'm not going to lie: it was tough sometimes," Leal said.

At Tech, he's quietly plugged away in a reserve role, getting spot duty in garbage time during blowouts, a rare occurrence for the Hokies in recent years.

When he's not playing football, he dabbles at the piano, something he started teaching himself in high school. He doesn't read music, just playing by ear any popular songs he can pick up from cover versions on YouTube. One of his favorites is Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

A more fitting song for his circumstances there might not be.

Posted to: College Football Sports Va. Tech Football

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