Justin Fuente has managed to accomplish quite a bit in the 15-plus months he’s been the head coach of Virginia Tech football.
Fuente has successfully revived the Hokies from a middling six/seven win program into an ACC Coastal Champion. He’s established a winning culture at Virginia Tech, all the while handling one of the trickiest coaching transitions in college football. Fuente has built on what Frank Beamer created in Blacksburg, and his philosophy couldn’t have worked much better.
“There’s a lot more than a team that goes through a coaching change,” Fuente said. “There’s people on the outside that have to handle a new way of doing things. My primary concern was the team and I would say that’s gone better than I could have hoped, just in terms of the lack of push back we’ve gotten since we’ve been here. There’s a lot of reasons I think for that, but most of them are because we’ve got a great group of kids.”
That said, not all admittedly has gone well. Sort of.
“You know, when we had the ball on the 23-yard-line vs. Clemson, I was pretty sure we were going to win the game,” Fuente said jokingly. “That didn’t go as well as I hoped or expected. But I don’t know if there’s anything big picture-wise that I can think of.”
Fuente helped implement a lively and successful offense at Virginia Tech, something that hasn’t been seen since the 2000s. Virginia Tech was particularly explosive through the air, finishing 35th in passing and 23rd in passing efficiency. Quarterback Jerod Evans set school records in passing yards and touchdowns, throwing for 3,552 yards and 29 touchdowns. The Hokies had much milder success on the ground, but the offense consistently moved the ball efficiently and with purpose.
“I’ve said this before, and I don’t know if anybody listens to me or not, but I don’t care about leading the country in offense or yards or plays, or any of that,” Fuente said. “I believe tempo is an advantage and should be used as that, but it shouldn’t be used as a detriment to the other side of the ball. I also don’t believe in running plays or scoring points just to do that. The object is to win the game and move on. We certainly had some opportunities to put up bigger numbers that we passed on, but that we will always pass on, quite honestly. But overall, we were pretty efficient offensively.”
Fuente’s offense did wonders in year one, but will have to replace multiple playmakers on offense. Evans, Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges all bolted for the NFL Draft after the season, while do-it-all running back and team leader Sam Rogers was lost to graduation. The three combined for 151 receptions for 2,086 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Rogers added 283 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Virginia Tech will need guys to step up on offense and make plays, most notably at wide receiver.
“I’m not real comfortable with anything right now, just to be honest,” Fuente said. “I’m not saying that in jest. I mean, there’s a few places I feel pretty good, but wide receiver is certainly open. We’re going to have a lot of competition. We’ve still got work to get our numbers up, they’re still not where they need to be. It’ll take us another year hopefully to get to that and even then, they’ll still be young guys.”
The numbers may not be where they want them, but the cupboard certainly isn’t bare. Cam Phillips returns after catching 76 passes for nearly 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in his junior campaign. Eric Kumah also returns after seeing limited time last season, as does CJ Carroll. Phillip Patterson and Samuel Denmark will fight for time as well after redshirting last season.
Phillips’ return should bring some level of comfort to the Hokies. Phillips played primarily on the perimeter in his first two seasons, but played almost entirely in the slot last season. Now, Virginia Tech feels comfortable with Phillips anywhere on the field.
“When you’ve got a guy at offensive lineman that can play tackle or guard, you get a two-for-one. That’s what Cam is,” Fuente said. “Cam, we feel comfortable putting him outside, we feel comfortable putting him in the slot. He gives you artificial depth. If your normal travel number is whatever, seven or eight, and Cam can count as two spots, it certainly helps you out.”
Hokies searching for new leaders, depth in offseason workouts
Phillips is also partially responsible for picking up the mantle left behind by the seniors from last season. Guys like Chuck Clark, Ken Ekanem, Sam Rogers and Augie Conte aren’t walking through those doors anymore, meaning other players need to step up and become team leaders.
“Ricky Walker is one that if you walked out there right now, you’d think it was his team,” Fuente said.
The next quarterback will need to rise to the occasion as well. Redshirt-freshman Josh Jackson, JUCO-transfer AJ Bush and true-freshman Hendon Hooker are all competing for the starting role come September, and all three will have to be ready to become the leader on offense.
“It’s a little easier on Josh in the offseason, just because he’s been through it,” Fuente said. “He knows what he’s doing, he knows where the library is and all those sorts of things. He’s much more comfortable. The other guys are trying to make sure they’re in the right spot, but they’re doing a good job. I think all three of them, in my opinion, have very good leadership qualities. They need not worry about anything other than making sure they’re doing their job right now. There will be plenty of time for that. They’ll be able to earn their stripes with the team.”
Jackson certainly seems to have a leg up on the other quarterbacks. Jackson has had over an entire year in the program and nearly won the starting job last season. Jackson ended up redshirting, but got valuable reps in Fuente’s offense.
“He still got good reps throughout the season,” Fuente said. “He wasn’t just down there running scout cards, so he got reps kind of as the emergency guy. Then there came a point in the season where we weren’t going to play him no matter what. I don’t know. We’ll see in the spring.”
The Hokies are looking for more than just a quarterback or a wide receiver this offseason. Tech must find depth at defensive end, where the two projected starters will miss spring football. Both Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota had offseason shoulder surgery, meaning there’s tons of open playing time this spring. Houshun Gaines and Jimmie Taylor are two of the only healthy options at defensive end for this spring.
“They’re going to get more reps than they want, I can tell you that,” Fuente said. “The line will be pretty short over there.”
Virginia Tech could work Emmanuel Belmar at end as well. Belmar was originally recruited as a linebacker and redshirted last season for the Hokies, but at 6-foot-2 and 228-pounds, Belmar could bulk up and move to end.
“I would say that’s certainly a possibility,” Fuente said.
Virginia Tech’s winter workouts are more than just a time for guys to grow as leaders or for coaches to find depth at certain areas. It’s an opportunity for Fuente and the coaching staff to further disseminate their message and build their desired culture. The winter is a time for the team to rally and come together.
“The summer is important as well, but for me, the winter time is a chance for us to create an identity as a team,” Fuente said. “It’s a chance for the coaches to be involved in the running and conditioning stuff. We do some things I think, I don’t know if they’re better than anyone else, but they’re unique to us and I think they fit our program and create that mindset and that identity that we’re looking for.”
That wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Hilgart. Hilgart must not only run the offseason workouts, but act as an extension of Fuente during the offseason. Fuente hired Hilgart last offseason despite not having any prior relationship with him. However, Fuente’s hire seems to have worked.
“There are a few people in that business that I really respect their opinion and I asked their opinion. There’s a couple other people in the business that I know that I talked to about the job, and I actually went with somebody that I didn’t know. Part of that was because I thought Ben and I had a similar vision for what that entailed, and I don’t mean how many plates are on the bar when you bench press. Just the way it should operate, the way it should be an extension of us.”
“It’s been a fantastic hire. I can’t say enough good things about him and the staff he’s assembled and the job he’s done,” Fuente said. “He’s done a fantastic job.”
Fuente pleased with success on the recruiting trail
Fuente has managed not only to revamp the offense and the offseason conditioning program, but he’s revitalized Virginia Tech on the recruiting trail. The Hokies landed a consensus top-30 recruiting class for the Class of 2017, and ranked 16th in the 247Sports Composite rankings. Virginia Tech’s 10-4 record and ACC Coastal Championship certainly helped.
“I certainly don’t think it’s hurt,” Fuente said. “Winning never hurts the perception. It shouldn’t be the only reason that guys give us a chance or look at Virginia Tech. There’s a lot of other reasons to choose this place, but I certainly think it’s gotten some people’s attention, or maybe stamped their previous conviction as valid, that this is a pretty special place.”
Fuente says that he’s been pleased with his staff on the recruiting trail so far, especially when it comes to their ability to network and maintain relationships with contacts.
“I’ve been impressed the way the previous relationships have been maintained and strengthened, and I’ve been impressed with the new relationships and bonds have been formed,” Fuente said. “We, as a staff, have made a concerted effort to reach out to people in the region and have been received well.”
Part of Fuente’s success on the recruiting trail can be traced to his evaluation of players. Virginia Tech has made it clear that they’ll recruit kids from all over the country, as long as they fit Tech’s system.
“I think of the most important things that gets talked about the least is the evaluation of players,” Fuente said. “Us having a vision of what we’re looking for and getting that communicated, I think is going better, has been impressive. The guys have a clear vision of what a defensive end looks like at Virginia Tech, or what a corner looks like. What an inside receiver and an outside receiver looks like… we’re not there at all of those spots. The way that we’ve been able to kind of adapt our identity has been pretty good.”