How close was the battle for Virginia Union’s starting quarterback job?
Jahkari Grant and Christian Reid vied so vehemently for the spot that the competition carried through the entirety of fall camp. In fact, the Panthers’ coaching staff didn’t officially declare the starter until earlier this week, just a couple of days before their season opener.
It was a tough decision, coach Alvin Parker said. But Grant, in the end, made just a few more plays in VUU practices to separate himself.
“It meant a lot,” Grant said, of winning the spot. “But I can credit [Reid] to that, too, because he pushed me to be the best player that I can be.”
And so it was Grant who directed the Panthers’ offense in their debut on Thursday at Hovey Field against Virginia University of Lynchburg, over Reid — his roommate and friend.
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He got the keys to an offense that showed its explosive potential. Grant threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, reigning CIAA offensive rookie of the year Jada Byers scored three touchdowns, former Prince George standout Curtis Allen ran for two touchdowns and dynamic receiver John Jiles caught two TD passes.
Their efforts paired with a voracious defensive showing, and VUU stomped its way to a 77-0 victory over VUL, in front of 4,760.
“The biggest thing, we wanted to get a lot of guys a chance to play [Thursday night],” Parker said. “And I think we did. I think we made it all the way down to the threes and the fours. But we knew during camp we had a good amount of depth. And we knew that, no matter who we put in, we can get some results.”
The Panthers (1-0) racked up 487 yards of total offense. They held the Dragons (0-1), members of the National Christian College Athletic Association, to 203 total yards.
Grant was 15 of 20 through the air, and ran for another 27 yards. Byers finished with 98 yards on 15 carries. Jiles caught five balls for 100 yards.
The playmaking ability within the Panthers’ offense runs deep. Grant, who began his career at Rhode Island, showed off his arm — most notably when he hit Keyon Dickens (J.R. Tucker) over the top for a 51-yard gain that set up Byers’ first touchdown run. Byers showed off his agile quickness and his strength — a second-quarter touchdown reception he had came after he powered through a tackle attempt right after the catch. Jiles showed off his athletic ability at 6-3, hurdling a VUL defender to add to his yards after the catch on a 29-yard gain early in the second quarter.
And the list could go on.
“We got too much depth for anybody to even compete with us,” said Byers, who also said he was playing with a passion in the aftermath of the passing of his sister on Sunday. Her funeral was Thursday.
Reid, who began his career at Charleston Southern, replaced Grant in the third quarter and had a 5-yard TD pass of his own, to Shoye Sampson (John Marshall) early in the fourth quarter.
VUU also had three special teams touchdowns: a blocked field goal returned 70 yards by Ephraim Moore to close the first half, a Byers 70-yard kickoff return to open the second half and a blocked punt that R.J. Rountree fell on in the end zone almost midway through the third quarter.
On defense, the Panthers played with a swarming intensity that yielded eight total sacks. Defensive end Armonii Burden, a preseason all-CIAA pick, was in on 1 1/2 sacks and led VUU with six total tackles.
“I just really appreciated how they didn’t let up,” Grant said of the defense. “Like they were just all gas, no brakes, the whole game.”
Even after a shutout recorded in the manner of Thursday’s, Parker walked away feeling the Panthers have a few things to work on — namely penalties, of which VUU had nine for a loss of 104 yards.
That’s all the more pertinent considering what’s next, too. The Panthers travel to face Valdosta State on Sept. 10, the No. 2-ranked team in D2Football.com’s preseason poll and last season’s national runner-up.
But, after Thursday’s statement, next Saturday figures to be an apt test for a VUU team that is teeming with talent.
“We’re excited to go down there and take on the challenge,” Grant said. “We just got to get better every day and go down there and just play our game.”