To say Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente knows how to develop quarterbacks might be a bit of an understatement.
Fuente has had a hand in the development of both Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch, who are both currently on NFL rosters. Dalton’s success has made the Cincinnati Bengals a perennial playoff contender, while Lynch is currently fighting for a starting role with the Denver Broncos, and was a first-round pick in 2016.
Fuente has also developed average recruits into solid players at the collegiate level. In Fuente’s last season as offensive coordinator at TCU, Casey Pachall finished the season with 2,921 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Jacob Karam started in Fuente’s first season as head coach at Memphis, and also put up relatively good numbers for a 3-9 team. Karam finished the season with 1,895 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Developing and coaching quarterbacks isn’t an exact science. So what’s been Fuente’s recipe?
“I think it’s just, a big part of it is the system, and the way that they teach it,” said quarterback AJ Bush. “It’s really beneficial because the checks and the reads that we make all go hand-in-hand, and the way that he teaches it makes it so much easier. Him and (Brad) Cornelsen do a great job of saying in black and white, ‘This is it. If they give you this, take this. If they don’t, don’t force it.’ We’re going to call bad plays into bad looks, you just can’t force it. You’ve got to take care of the ball.”
Fuente’s offensive system was on full display during the 2016 season. Jerod Evans won the starting competition in fall camp, and came into the season with zero experience at the FBS level. Sure enough, Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen devised a plan to exploit Evans’ strengths and hide his weaknesses. Evans wasn’t asked to go through too many progressions, instead focusing on quick reads and making plays based on a pre-snap look.
The system worked about as well as one could ask. Evans set multiple single-season records for Virginia Tech, throwing for 3,552 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also ran for 846 yards and another 12 touchdowns, both team highs.
Evans’ success helped Fuente land Bush this offseason as a JUCO transfer. Bush was desperately needed to not only compete for the starting job, but to provide depth at the position.
“You saw what he did with Paxton Lynch. He turned that season around quick, he turned that program around quick,” Bush said. “Andy Dalton, great quarterback that’s in the league right now, I saw all of that. Jerod, in one year, coming from JUCO, I’ve seen all of that. All of that was a green light, to say, ‘Man, this is a good spot to be at.’”
Bush had opportunities to go elsewhere. He talked with Baylor, Texas A&M and Marshall during his second recruitment, but ended up choosing Virginia Tech.
“The conversation with him really made things more clear about what was at hand,” Bush said.
Fuente’s experience in developing quarterbacks helped the Hokies land Hendon Hooker as well. Hooker signed as a member of the 2017 class out of Greensboro, N.C., and also had opportunities to go elsewhere.
“It was something that really stuck with me,” Hooker said. “He played the position, and has had a great past with developing quarterbacks. I just felt like he could develop me to be the best quarterback I can be.”
Fuente’s coaching style plays a role as well. Virginia Tech’s quarterbacks say that Fuente is very hands-on, while also letting Cornelsen handle things.
“If he sees you doing something that he frowns upon or might not be the right thing, then he definitely is going to pull you aside right there and coach you up,” Hooker said.
“They do a very good job of coaching, just like really informing us and making it pretty easy on us when it comes to reads, our footwork and everything like that,” said quarterback Josh Jackson.
If Fuente’s past quarterback success is any indication, whoever ends up starting this fall for Virginia Tech should be at least moderately successful. That feeling emanates from the team.
“You can see, like you said, a different skill set with kind of the same system, basically,” Bush said. “Everybody can be productive. I think it’s just a matter of the coach playing to the quarterback’s strengths, and just moving that way with the team.”