In what appeared to be headed toward a seemingly uneventful bye week, Virginia Tech football quickly flipped that upside down by hiring Jerry Kill as the special assistant to head coach Justin Fuente on Monday morning.
Kill comes over to the Hokies after serving as the director of athletics at Southern Illinois since 2018. The Eddie Robinson Award Winner (2004) and Big Ten Coach of the Year (2014) was the head coach at Southern Illinois from 2001-2007, Northern Illinois from 2008-2010, and Minnesota from 2011-2015.
His most memorable season came in 2014 when Kill led the Gophers to an 8-5 record and invitation to the Citrus Bowl, Minnesota’s first New Year’s Day bowl game appearance since 1962.
“He’s going to be a fantastic resource for myself and for all of our coaches,” Fuente said during Monday’s press conference. “This is an opportunity for coach Kill to come in and continue to give us good feedback involved in virtually every aspect of our program from drawing on his years of experience and knowledge. I’m excited to have that resource for our coaches and for myself. Look forward to getting him here and putting him to work so to speak.”
Fuente and Kill built the connection through TCU head coach Gary Patterson. Fuente was with Patterson at TCU from 2007-2011, first as a running backs coach and then as the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Meanwhile, Kill and Patterson have been long-time friends.
The connection offered the opportunity for Fuente to invite Kill to come observe Virginia Tech’s offseason work in the summer.
“We continued our relationship through that time,” Fuente said. “Reached out to him this summer just to see if he wouldn’t mind coming to watch practice for a few days. Stay over here at my house and watch fall camp, kind of give me some feedback on everything we were doing program wide.
“Over those couple days, we began to have some discussions. I didn’t think there was any way that this was going to work, meaning that he would be interested in it. It’s been something we’ve been working on for some time.”
So what were some of those observations that Kill made during his glimpse into the program?
“I’m not going to tell you any of those,” Fuente said with a smirk.
Fuente did note that this was not an indication of where the Hokies were heading with Bud Foster’s impending retirement, or a role to fill the void left by Danielle Bartelstein’s departure (Director of Football Operations), one that’s now being filled by Matt Transue. Over his brief time in Blacksburg, Kill did make suggestions on the way practice was organized to personnel and even schemes.
“It was really good,” Fuente said. “I told him I wanted to talk about everything from the minute details of what he noticed… You want somebody that has got the courage and knowledge base to give you good feedback, but also understands that some of it we can take and implement, but we can’t implement all of it.”
The hardest part of the entire operation was pulling Kill away from his beloved Salukis. Kill is in the Hall of Fame at Southern Illinois, and developed a number of relationships at the school and in the community over his time as a coach and an administrator.
He’s also had his battle with epilepsy that forced him to retire from the head coaching position at Minnesota in 2015. Still, Kill is a football guy through and through, and he likely developed an itch to return to the gridiron during his time away from it, even if he can’t directly work with players under his new position.
“I think that I’m safe in saying that he does not want to be very far from football,” Fuente said. “That is in his blood. That is who he is. Obviously he has had some health issues to deal with, some difficulties along the way with his health. And I hope I’m not stepping out of line here by saying in his heart and soul he’s a football man. And that was probably part of his reason.”
Willis and Fuente’s Shared Experience
Ryan Willis’ start to the 2019 has been uneven. He’s turned the ball over six times over three games, but he’s also thrown for seven touchdowns and 246.33 yards per game over the same time. During Saturday’s 24-17 win over Furman, the redshirt senior heard a smattering of boos from the Hokie faithful on a few occasions.
The quarterback of the team needs to have a shorter memory and be able to handle the criticism better than anyone else. Fuente has been impressed with the way Willis has demonstrated just that so far.
“I think he’s done a good job of trying to stay focused on the task at hand,” Fuente said. “It’s a difficult job. It’s a difficult position. He understands that and what comes with it. If you play sports long enough you’re going to be in situations that are difficult.”
Fuente himself was a quarterback, first at Oklahoma where he threw for 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in two seasons. He eventually went on to transfer to Murray State where he was honored as the Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, but the lessons he learned during his career still holds true today.
“Playing that position poorly is not very fun,” Fuente said. “I know because I’ve done it a lot. It also can fuel your fire and your desire to improve and find a way to play it well. That’s what you’ve got to have. You have to have the ability to not ignore the things that didn’t go well, but learn from and adjust and move forward.
“There’s also nothing better than playing that position well. That’s really a very influential position in college football today in terms of being able to determine the outcomes of games or having a large say in the outcomes of games. Playing it well is a wonderful, wonderful experience, and struggling is difficult. You have to find a way to let that fuel your preparation so that you don’t find yourself in those situations.”
- When asked about which players will benefit the most from the bye week in terms of health or development, Fuente rattled off a number of players. First, he said he’d like to get Zachariah Hoyt and T.J. Jackson back healthy, while also using the time to home in on the progression of the young offensive linemen. He’d also like to see TyJuan Garbutt and Nadir Thompson use the off week to heal up, while the young defensive linemen take another step forward.
- There’s still no indication of when wide receiver Damon Hazelton will return from his hamstring injury. “We’re trying to progress him back out there,” Fuente said. “I thought I knew three weeks ago, and I feel a little foolish for being as optimistic as I was. Not because Damon disappointed me, but because I felt strongly that everything was fine, and it obviously wasn’t. I really don’t know.”
- Much was made of Silas Dzansi’s struggles on Saturday after getting beat on several occasions off the edge. It forced Luke Tenuta into action against Furman. “I don’t know that I can put my finger on it right now,” Fuente said. “I know what he’s capable of. I believe in him. I see how hard he works every day. He knows that he can and will play better. It’s part of our focus this week.”