Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente joined Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops at Bank of America Stadium for a joint press conference Wednesday morning. It was the first time Fuente spoke publicly since his postgame comments against UVa at the end of November.
Since that time, there’s been a non-stop cycle of news coming out of Blacksburg during a typically quiet time for a football program.
December 3 – Eight Hokies earned All-ACC honors highlighted by Caleb Farley’s First Team All-ACC selection.
December 8 – Justin Hamilton named Bud Foster’s successor as defensive coordinator; Cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell and running backs coach Zohn Burden will not return to the program; Virginia Tech slated to face Kentucky in the Belk Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
December 9 – Long-time defensive line coach Charley Wiles parts ways with the Hokies.
December 11 – Adam Lechtenberg officially named running backs coach; Lechtenberg’s previous role as executive director of player development will instead be filled with another position coach on defense.
Fuente talked about a number of these topics earlier this morning.
Justin Hamilton’s Rise to Defensive Coordinator
Virginia Tech made a huge announcement this past Sunday when it announced that safeties coach Justin Hamilton would replace Bud Foster and become the Hokies’ new defensive coordinator beginning for the 2020 season.
The 37-year-old Clintwood, Virginia native played in Blacksburg from 2002-2005. After stints at UVa-Wise and VMI, Hamilton returned to Virginia Tech as Director of Player Development for defense in 2018 before coaching the safeties this year.
“I can tell you with Justin it just kept coming back to his leadership, his intelligence,” Fuente said at Wednesday’s press conference. “I believe he’s a star in the making in this business. I just kept feeling that he was the guy that had to be beat. He set the bar in terms of what we were looking for, and I just don’t feel like anybody exceeded his ability to do the job.”
The Hokies have had ample amount of time to make this decision with Foster announcing his intention to retire all the way back in August. Over the course of the season and in the weeks since the end of the regular season, Hamilton remained the top candidate.
“When Bud made his decision, we had some time to do a little bit of background work,” Fuente said. “Everybody was coaching. We weren’t interviewing people in the middle of the season for defensive coordinator jobs. We were able to do quite a bit of leg work behind the scenes. When the season began to wind down, we got the chance to talk to a number of qualified candidates. I did not offer the job to anybody but Justin. It just kept coming back to him and his ability to lead and our ability to surround him with a great staff.”
With a former player taking the helm as defensive coordinator, the Lunch Pail Defense will remain in place, but that’s not to say there won’t be a few wrinkles. Hamilton will be given the chance to insert his viewpoint and schemes that might differ in some cases from Foster.
“I think it would be fair to say that there will be some things that change,” Fuente said. “You can’t just carbon copy people or scheme or philosophy. It’s got to change with your personnel and change with your staff. That being said, we’re not going to change things just to change things and make our own mark. We shouldn’t take the VT off the helmet just because it’s different.
“I think Justin has a good sense of that and what our players can do moving forward. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know that there will be wide, sweeping changes, but Justin will have his chance to tweak some things to best fit his personality and what he believes are the strength of our personnel.”
With the announcement of Hamilton becoming defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech will be tasked with filling an entirely new staff of position coaches on defense with Foster, Wiles, and Mitchell all gone. However, Fuente hinted that the team is further along in that process than those outside the program might think.
“Justin is going to be our defensive coordinator moving forward, but the staff is a puzzle and you’re putting pieces of the puzzle together,” Fuente said. “We’re pretty far down the road in doing that as we are able to handle all the needs with the university, and human resources-wise will be able to announce those things moving forward. There’s a lot of variables in terms of timing of announcements. I can tell you that we’re pretty far down the road with the staff.”
Belk Bowl Outlook
What was the one thought that went through Fuente’s mind when it was announced on Sunday that Virginia Tech would be facing Mark Stoops and Kentucky in the Belk Bowl?
“When you play a Stoops brother you know you’re going to get great defense,” Fuente said.
That’s exactly the case for the Wildcats, who will come into the Belk Bowl allowing just 18.4 points and 324.3 yards per game, numbers good for third and sixth respectively in the SEC. Kentucky has built its identity on defense, especially after losing its top two quarterbacks to injuries.
As a result, Kentucky has given wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. the reins of the offense at quarterback. The future NFL pick is 29-of-62 passing for 330 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s done his damage on the ground with 151 carries for 1,235 yards and 11 touchdowns, including 284 yards rushing and four touchdowns in the last game of the regular season against Louisville. The junior also added 348 receiving yards before he became the starting quarterback, so his versatility was on display the entire year.
“I’m looking forward to looking at in-depth what they’re doing offensively,” Fuente said. “I know they’ve made some changes at quarterback. They’ve had to think outside the box and have been very productive with it. It’s a tremendous credit to coach and his staff to find a way to adapt and find ways to be effective and win games.”
Fuente and Co. return to the location where the Hokies last won a bowl game. Virginia Tech scored 35 unanswered points in the second half to defeat Arkansas 35-24 in the 2016 Belk Bowl. It’s a team and a moment that Fuente holds fond memories of.
“We had a great senior class that really wanted to win the game,” Fuente said. “When it got to game time, we did not play well in the first half. Arkansas did play well. It was not a situation where we were sleepwalking through the first half. We had great leadership, and we just weren’t playing very well. Our guys really responded and came out of halftime and played up to our ability in the second half and found a way to win the game. We made a lot of memories that week both off the field leading up to the game and on the field during the game.”
So how important would another win be from Bank of America Stadium at noon on New Year’s Eve?
“We’d like to send our seniors out the right way and take a step towards next season with all those players coming back. That’s the context of it,” Fuente said. “Providing some momentum and confidence for your players that are returning for the next year.”