Haynes King’s run as starting quarterback officially begins Sept. 1 against Louisville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Aflac Kickoff game (previously the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game). In the opener of a much-anticipated season, Tech fans will learn if King, a Texas A&M transfer, can convert third-and-long as well as he can heed his coach’s instructions. King has had some practice – his dad has made his career in coaching high-school football.
“If that’s what he tells you to do, you do it,” said John King, who has served as head coach at Longview (Texas) High since 2004 and collected more than 200 wins.
The decision to go with King over Pyron probably rates as the biggest of Key’s first preseason as head coach, and it seems like a positive indicator for Tech’s trajectory.
While in a relatively small sample size last season, Pyron looked like he had the makings to be Tech’s quarterback for the next four seasons. He showed toughness, leadership and a knack for making plays when they needed to be made.
As a freshman last season, he was far from a finished product. But as Key declared after Pyron rallied the Jackets from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in November in only his second college game, “He’s got ice in his veins.”
That’s the guy who, after an offseason and preseason of competition, has been deemed merely the second-best quarterback on the roster.
King hardly is an unknown quantity. He won the starting job at Texas A&M in the 2021 and 2022 preseasons. He played two games in 2021 before he sustained a season-ending ankle injury. In 2022, he lost the job after two games but fought through injuries to come back and play a total of six games. In his Aggies career, he appeared in 10 games, completing 128 of 226 passes (56.6%) for 1,579 yards with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
There’s a clear advantage in experience. Beyond on-field snaps, this will be King’s fourth college season and Pyron’s second. And while he was impressive in his time on the field, Pyron played in a total of three games (starting two) last season before a broken clavicle in the Miami game ended his season.
Further, in high school in Alabama, Pyron played his first two years at a school with a run-heavy offense before transferring to a school with a more developed passing offense.
Simply, King has had more time in the saddle.
Still, it feels like something of a risk to move away from a quarterback who appears to possess a knack for winning and has done so in a Tech uniform. It’s a significant decision that Key will be judged on.
Which, again, speaks to the possibilities that Key must see in King, who didn’t have an easy go of it at Texas A&M. He played through painful injuries. He played for a program that was a mess.
But in an environment that appears far more stable, King has won the first-string quarterback job and has a chance to start anew. Key is behind him.
“You can’t predict the future and what’s going to happen, but this is Haynes King’s job,” Key told the AJC. “This is Haynes’ job. Haynes won this battle.”
That leads to another potentially beneficial outcome of the competition. While Key will extend a long leash to King, it’s not going to stop Pyron from competing for an opportunity. (Key said both will play.) As long as Pyron has a team-first attitude about it – and nothing suggests he won’t – that could also serve the Jackets well. Key said Thursday that, when he informed Pyron that King was the starter, Pyron was not happy about it.
“No different than any of us would be,” Key said. “That’s what I like, that’s what I love about him. That’s why we recruited him here, and why Zach Pyron’s going to be a great player. There’s no question in my mind about that.”
As any coach would hope, the competition between King and Pyron (and Zach Gibson) was heated but healthy. It made them better players.
“Gosh, they were consistent,” Key said of King and Pyron. “Great friendship. Never once have they been against each other. They are all for each other. Both of them, extremely consistent.”
The competition isn’t over. Pyron will push King in practice, which figures to continue to make both better players. And the example of two players at the team’s primary leadership position competing in practice surely will be noticed.
Said Key, “That’s what you want.”
Other factors also will determine whether the Jackets make their first bowl since 2018, the last season of Paul Johnson’s tenure. The offensive line has to protect the quarterback and create holes in the run game. The defense needs to replace All-ACC defensive end (and second-round NFL draft pick) Keion White and All-ACC linebackers Charlie Thomas and Ayinde Eley.
The schedule won’t do the Jackets any favors. Tech plays four teams in the preseason AP Top 25 – No. 1 Georgia, No. 9 Clemson, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 22 Ole Miss. If the Jackets fail to knock off any of those four, they need to be 6-2 against the rest of the schedule to go .500 and make a bowl, and six of those eight are against ACC opponents. Tech did upset the Tar Heels last year in Chapel Hill, but overall there’s not much margin for error.
As it always does, time will tell. But with a quarterback who has won the job over his icy-veined competitor, Key has one important asset he intends to bank on.