Josh Jackson took a phone call last week from a guy offering a few words of encouragement and advice. The guy on the other line was Tom Brady.
No big deal.
“He just called me and it was awesome. That’s about it,” Jackson said sheepishly after leading the Hokies to a big win against West Virginia on Sunday night.
What you need to know about that phone call is not what Brady said. What you need to know is why Brady called, and what that means for a Virginia Tech football program that has seemingly found a star in the making.
Jackson grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the youngest son of longtime Michigan assistant Fred Jackson. Tagging along with dad, watching film and hanging around the Michigan football program became part of the routine for young Josh.
Once Josh started playing football, it became fairly obvious he was the son of a coach. By age 8, he was making checks at the line on his Little League team. He’d pepper his dad with constant questions during film study, building up his football knowledge that gave him clear advantages over all the other boys playing quarterback.
Fred always told Josh, “Quarterbacks win with their minds, son. You have to have it between the ears.” That sage advice stuck with Josh, who made it a point to become the smartest quarterback in the room. Virginia Tech coaches have widely praised his football IQ, and that can all be traced to Fred, a former quarterback himself at Jackson State.
During his 23-year Michigan career, Fred mostly worked with running backs but had an outsized presence with the program. He was not only on staff when Brady played, he served as an assistant to four different head coaches, building connections that continue to serve him even now as a high school head coach in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Fred had an older son, Jeremy, play at Michigan. Josh always dreamed about playing at Michigan, too, but once the recruiting process picked up, the fit wasn’t there. Michigan never offered a scholarship. Rather, Josh set his sights on Virginia Tech thanks primarily to former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
The relationship between Loeffler and Fred Jackson spanned decades. Fred recruited Loeffler to play quarterback at Michigan. Then the two worked on the same staff with the Wolverines. An official visit to Virginia Tech cinched the deal, and Josh committed in the summer of 2015.
But a few months later, Loeffler no longer had a job with the Hokies. Frank Beamer announced his retirement, and Loeffler took a job at Boston College. The Jacksons were stunned. Beamer had told them during that visit to Virginia Tech he had no plans to retire.
Justin Fuente came in and began to evaluate tape on every player Virginia Tech had a commitment from or was recruiting. Keeping Jackson became a priority. Fuente flew up to Michigan to meet with the Jackson family.
“It’s kind of like jumping into a relationship when somebody else has had a relationship with that person and it’s gone pretty far down the road and you’re kind of a replacement in there,” Fuente said. “But it went really well. I really enjoyed it. I came away walking out of there feeling great about him and his family and what they wanted to do. I felt like they believed we could use the change as a positive thing for him and his career.”
Fred Jackson peppered Fuente with questions about his offense, and his track record with former quarterbacks such as Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch. What sold him on Fuente were not so much those answers, but what he told Josh.
“I’ve been in these rooms for 34 years with a Division I football coach,” Fred Jackson said. “Coach Fuente, he said the right things. He let Joshua know he was going to have an opportunity when he was ready to play. He was genuine.”
Josh enrolled early, and immediately he impressed Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen with his football knowledge.
“He could probably sit down in our staff meetings and fit right in,” Cornelsen said. “You can tell he’s been around coaches all his life.”
Jackson came up just short in the quarterback competition last year, sitting and watching Jerod Evans lead the Hokies to the Coastal Division title. Fred said Josh got frustrated at times, but he again reminded his son to keep studying to build up that football IQ. Cornelsen gave Jackson a list of things to work on, fundamental and technical improvements he could make to help him before the quarterback competition began last spring.
Chief among them: releasing the ball faster. Cornelsen saw vast improvement in that area, but coaches left the competition open until camp. Fred notes the day before Josh left home this summer to return to Virginia Tech, “He was in a different zone. He was going to win the job.”
Josh won it early in camp, and that allowed Fuente and Cornelsen the time to get him prepped and to design a specific game plan. Jackson came out against West Virginia with poise and command. He made good decisions, and good reads and had zero turnovers.
Though Jackson ran a little bit more than expected and went over 100 yards, the Hokies called only three designed runs for him. The others came on reads, including a 46-yard dash through the middle of the West Virginia defense.
Perhaps most impressively, Jackson never looked flustered. He anticipated what would happen based on the defense he saw. All of that is a testament not only to his coaching, but to his father and all those years spent in the film room.