Transcript And Video: Justin Fuente’s Signing Day Press Conference

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Opening Remarks

I know Whit spoke at length yesterday about a variety of subjects. I appreciate him doing those things. I’d like to start out covering a couple of topics and then I’m sure there’s plenty of questions on a variety of things that I’ll answer to the best of my ability.

I’m just really happy to be here today. We had a fantastic day with signing day. We still have two more guys who have signed, it’s just not been announced. It’s been a fantastic day for Virginia Tech football. I had a wonderful day yesterday. I met with almost everyone on our football team, face-to-face, one-on-one, and then we had a team meeting in the evening time. I’m just telling you, we have some special young men here. Just guys who have persevered through incredibly hard times.

It was fun getting to talk to them about what we’ve done and where we’re going and all the nuances that have kind of united us through these difficult times. This was obviously hard on everybody. I felt a special sense of camaraderie for making it through it. I think about my time in this business and the ups and downs. I hear people talk about golf being a humbling sport because you can hit one right down the fairway and hit the next one right out of bounds pretty easy. This is a humbling profession too. You think you have things figured out and you think you know what you’re doing, then some things happen and it kind of slaps you in the face a little bit. 

In regards to our football team, there’s a tremendous amount to be proud of. There were some things that disappoint me and were my responsibility and my fault. We were an inconsistent football team to say the least. At times we looked really good out there, at times we were poor. I do the exact thing we encourage our players to do. When things don’t go well, what kind of person are you? Are you the kind of person that looks in the mirror and says, ‘What did I do to contribute to this situation and what can I do to help fix this?’ Or are you the type of person who looks out the window and points your finger at everyone else and figures out all the ways you got wrong along the way. I encourage our players to be the type of people who look in the mirror and that’s what we’ve been forced to do.

We’ve set out to be a hard, smart, and tough football team and I thought we were at times, but we were not nearly enough. Not for my liking, not for our fans’ liking, not for the supporters liking, not for anybody that loves and cares about Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech football. That’s my responsibility and we have to do better. We have to be a more consistent football team. We talk about those things and I felt like quite honestly — we talk about grit and sticktoitiveness because I believe in those things. I believe in showing up every day and doing your very best through difficult circumstances. You know being consistent is a part of grit too. You know, if the things that we hold dear we didn’t live up to as a football team on not near enough consisting of a basis. That’s my mission and my goal and that’s what we’re absolutely going to go get back.

I feel like in our time here we have been that. We were not very much during this year. We set this program up and our resources up to be the best developmental program in America. And that’s through our evaluation of young people. You’ll see it time and time again. You’ll see people that are unheralded to go on to do fantastic things or be great players. Virginia Tech has a long history of that and we have continued that. We’ll see that in the years to come and in this year whether they’re playing in the NFL or going on to go to succeed in business and I think we got a lot of cool things going on here in terms of we’re building things that are centered around that development model.

When you take a look at all the construction is going on, it’s all centered around the student-athlete. We want to develop them academically, we want to develop them athletically, socially and spiritually.  And I want us to devote all of our resources to our student-athletes and their development in those four areas because I believe that’s the most important. I don’t want a waterfall in our locker room. Doesn’t make us any better. I want us to try and feed them the best food we can feed them. I want them to be able to lift the best weights in the nicest weight room. I want them to have the best academic counselors and the best support. We hired Sam Stewart who I think it’s going to be an all-star for us in terms of the social development interaction for our teams. Obviously during COVID that’s been limited, but I’m just so excited about our ability to take those principles and start to you imply and put them into use here Virginia Tech.

We’re just on the precipice of being able to do some of these things. I’m quite honestly amazed we had a season at all. There’s a lot of people that deserve a tremendous amount of credit for that. I’m not going to start naming them because I’ll forget them, but the extra work that people across the board did for us to pull off a season at all was fantastic. I’ve got to tell you that the thing that we all miss the most was pulling up from the hotel. I mean it was a really eerie feeling to pull up from the hotel and have no Hokie walk, have no fans there, have nobody there for our guys to go through Enter Sandman and run out and be used to this incredible emotional rush that you feel when you come out. To not have anybody there was really surreal and I think if anything, we realize how much we do miss all those people and how big of part it is to everybody’s life. It’s really an intricate fabric to the life of every day life here Virginia Tech.

To our fans, we miss you. We didn’t get to have fan day this this year, and that was one of my favorite days. My girls run around with the players, I get to sit in one spot and meet many of you all that support and love Virginia Tech football. Those are the tough parts of what we did, but I’m going to tell you this, I’m proud of how we finished. We have a lot to be proud of for our young people and what they went through. We ended up winning a rivalry game and it’s given us tremendous momentum heading forward.

We’re all best when we’re all together. I have a great feeling about our staff, our support personnel and ultimately our players to be all in. I just implore everybody to jump on board and support these kids. We’ve got a whole slew of new ones who have chosen Virginia Tech. They’ve decided to come be Hokies. I’m really impressed with their families, their academics, their grades, their work ethics. Not what they are, but what they can be. If we’re going to be the best development program in America, then we’ve got to trust our evaluation. We’ve got to trust our ability to get to know these people and project ahead of not what they are, but what they can be. I couldn’t be more excited about all of that. I know it’s a mouthful. We’ve got a lot of things going on, so if you have questions please ask.

On opting out of bowl game

Yeah, I will say that. In our meetings, the players, I met with the seniors, I met with almost every player one-on-one. Then, we had a team meeting. Our players have decided to not play. I’m going to support them 100 percent. I think it speaks to the difficulty of the season they’ve been through. There were players that wanted to play and were passionate about that. We were going to do this all together or not. It just became evident that it was a very difficult situation. There’s kids that would like to go home for Christmas. There’s kids that haven’t been home in some time. You all know all of those things. This is ultimately about our kids. I think they’ve sacrificed enough. They’ve been at this for some time and given up freedoms and plenty of opportunities. We’re going to turn the page and get ready to go.

On the nature of the 4-hour meeting with Whit

I think it was beneficial. We have met every week for however many weeks. It’s not like we walked in there and we discussed things that had never been brought up. We talked about a lot of things. At the foremost part of it is, I don’t know, I have been a little bit removed from what’s being said, but I’ve been told that there have been people who said he and I don’t get along. That’s not true. Anything of that nature is being overblown. We had a great conversation. I expressed to him my deep desire to live in Blacksburg, Virginia as the coach of Virginia Tech and help this program. My wife and kids love it here. I love our football players. We have a special, special group. We talked about where we’re at. You can imagine I had several things I wanted to talk about, he had several things he wanted to talk about. We hit about every topic you can possibly imagine.

On expressing a willingness to help him

I appreciate that sentiment. I think that goes back to what I said a minute ago. There’s a person who is in charge of something who is not looking out the window, pointing the finger at other people, but looking in the mirror and seeing what he can do to help this situation. He is a great resource, and I do need to do a better job of using that resource. It’s like I told him, sometimes I get up in the morning and I drive to work when it’s dark and I stay at work. I go home, it’s dark and I drive home. I get in that rhythm of, I guess my wife would say, single-minded. I would be foolish to not take help and have those discussions about what we can do. He has a lot of responsibilities. Both of these jobs can be lonely at times. I think having someone to bounce off and talk to and about the things we’re both dealing with could be nothing but productive.

On if he sees a need for more transparency in program

No. I don’t know, I know that doing anything with anyone for the last year has been really, really difficult. If you’re talking about, it just depends on what we’re doing. I know we have some plans. When we hired Darryl Tapp, immediately the first thing I talked to him about were former players and some of those things. He put together a plan that I think is really cool. Three things, we may not be able to do all three of them, but we haven’t been able to do any of them because of COVID. I don’t know what all of that entails. I want to make sure we do the best job we can servicing the people who know and believe how important what we do is. There’s certainly an element to that. 

On if he’s fallen short in fan engagement

I don’t know. One of my favorite days of the year is fan day. I enjoy being around people who love Virginia Tech. Finding some more ways to make those things happen, I’m completely open to. I’ve never turned down an opportunity to do any of that within reason. I’ll be certainly open to whatever we’re thinking about doing. 

On roster management

No, I have not given those guys a deadline. We have several that are — let me just paint the picture. The seniors that have another year of eligibility, if we go over 85 (scholarship limit) with them it’s OK. It’s not pressing for me — it’s not that I can’t recruit a freshman because a senior may come back.

There are several of those guys who have said they’re absolutely coming back. There are several that have said they’re not. Divine Deablo and Khalil Herbert are not coming back. There’s several who are not. There’s several who are in the process of trying to figure it out who I’ve talked to. I told them, ‘Please go home and relax and don’t do anything. Get your body feeling good, and then let’s talk in a week or a week and a half.’ There are some guys that are in the process of making decisions about whether they should turn pro or come back to school for another year. To be completely candid, there are guys who have already made those decisions or are in the process of making those decisions. I’m not going to break the news with the guys. I’m going to let them do that whenever they feel good about it. 

On potential transfers

There’s 1,200 people in the transfer portal as of yesterday. I would imagine that we’ll have some. I have talked to almost everybody on this football team face-to-face. I’m not going to get too far. Some of them are sensitive situations that I don’t want to push one way or the other publicly, meaning I don’t want to feel one way or another about what I said or didn’t say about their situation. I’m sure that that will be a factor with some people moving forward.

On him not being able to confirm that Nester and Hudson are in portal yet

Correct. (editor’s note: Doug Nester has since officially entered the transfer portal)

On pride of making it through 2020 season

Well, certainly. There’s things you can be proud of and there’s things you should work on. You can start to slip down the excuse hole pretty quickly. It’s not that hard to do. We all want to do it, we’re humans, but you’ve got to snap yourself out of it and realize you are what your record says you are. That’s a fact. Regardless of the circumstances. It’s not like we played other teams that didn’t have to deal with the same things.

Now, there are nuances in how each school dealt with it. Some schools had kids in their own dorm room, like the whole team on campus in their own dorm room. Some had to deal with it all during the summer time, so on and so forth. I’m proud of the way I finished. What I don’t like is I’ve always been able to produce a team that lived up to the words and things we talked about, and we did at times, but not nearly enough. That’s what eats at me, and I’m sure eats at everybody. We feel like there’s glimpses in there where we should be a more consistently tough football team.

On discussions of the coaching staff with Whit

We evaluated both with Whit and myself, we evaluate every aspect of what we’re doing. That includes staff and personnel and strengths and weaknesses. It continues to get bigger. Now you have a staff of off the field coaches and recruiting personnel and so on and so forth. It is pertinent that we talk about those things. I explain my opinion of the strengths and weaknesses of the people we have. How they all seem to fit together, where we need to get more of, who’s overachieving? All those sorts of evaluations. I don’t anticipate there being any changes. I’m not done meeting with my whole staff. I started this morning with several things between signing day and that sort of stuff. It’s my charge to make and push them all to get better because we all need to get better.

On in-state recruiting

I’m really excited. We’re going to end up with seven from Virginia. We went back and pulled up our board from January 15 of last year. On our very first board in our meeting on January 15, 17 of our 24 signees were on that first board. It means we had evaluated them, we felt like we were recruiting them heavily, we felt like they were Virginia Tech people. We didn’t care who else was recruiting them. Those were the guys. Were there guys we didn’t get? Absolutely. I think that’s a pretty cool sign. We’ve done that study before and the numbers have been much lower, much lower. That really excites me of the top guys that we got a bunch of them.

On pressure going into 2021

We just finished playing a couple days ago, now you’ve got me all pressured up about next season already? What we’re going to do is when we get back in January, you’re going to see a group that’s fired up to go coach. We’re going to go coach them in a way that we know how to coach. We’re going to go put a productive group out there on the field. I understand the expectations and I relish that opportunity to go meet and exceed those. If you’re prepared, it’s not pressure. It’s what we love to do. I am excited to step away for a couple days, but I’m super excited for January 18 when our guys come back. We will not be on the road. That’s the other neat part of it. We will be able to be here around our guys so much more. I’m really excited for that opportunity.

On Whit’s comment about it being like year one

There’s certainly been a lot that goes into that. He didn’t say it was year one, he said there are some things that are like year one. That’s fair. I get how the connotation with that, I’m not going to makes excuses for anything. It’s up to us to go get the job done. I am incredibly excited about the people up and down that hallway. If we can just get everyone together and get past it. I saw it on the inside of the walls, I saw what was going on in the maturation level and the connectivity that was going on with our players and our staff. It’s got me really, really excited about the future.

On signing safeties and the Stroman family

The safety position, it might be, it just continues to get more important with everything that’s going on on the offensive side of the ball in college football. We were paper thin. Some of that was injury related, some of that was just pure depth to begin with. We had to do a good job at that position. It’s so incredibly important and we had some ground to make up in that spot. I think J Ham did a great job. You see the longer athletes, whether they’re on the defensive line, some of those bigger, longer bodies that may play safety or may play linebacker or may grow into defensive ends and not really sure, but they’re great kids who work hard and have some length and some size.

That’s kind of what we were looking for. We’ll figure it out as we go through the program. It was important for us to have some guys. Jalen and that family. They’re incredible. They are Hokies. Obviously Greg was a great player here and loves this place. So honored to get the Stroman family to trust us and get Jalen to come and blaze his own path. I think that was part of the message for him. Yeah, I know Greg was a really, really good player here, but you have a chance to blaze your own path as well. I think he certainly will. 

On not having specific expectations from Whit Babcock for next year

That did not surprise me that he didn’t say that. That’s never been a real conversation or the way that we’ve approached anything. That didn’t surprise me that he didn’t bring it up.

On defensive tackle Desmond Mamudi…

It starts with Tapp and Teerlinck and our recruiting staff continuing to probe and look. This is the most unique recruiting year, probably followed by next year, in terms of evaluation. You have kids that have not played their senior year and are about to sign. You have kids that I have never been in the same room with that signed. We’re continuing to use our connections and look and see who has great senior years because sometimes that gets lost and you can find really good players that come on as they get older.

In Virginia, hopefully they get to play in the spring, but there has been no senior year for some of those guys. Our recruiting staff is continuing to use their connections and look around, and Tapp and Teerlinck are continuing to stay active. This is somebody that we got on who had a great senior year and we hit it off with. Everything checked out.

On Hendon Hooker and his health and not playing against UVA…

I’m sure he’s disappointed. Ultimately, we’ll see how it all works out. I don’t know how to describe it, it was an odd ending. I’m thankful that he’s okay more than anything. Our medical people did a full work-up and all that sort of stuff and he’s okay. It’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out.

On Frank Beamer and Bud Foster…

We should always celebrate what Frank did here because it’s amazing. To take this place and what it’s meant to Virginia Tech, following Frank is not hard because of Frank. He couldn’t be any better or more supportive. Bud has been absolutely fantastic and worked his tail off while we were together. I hate it for Bud that we were so close last year to finishing it off in epic style. We were really, really close.

It doesn’t have anything to do with them. We as a program are working to improve and, in some areas, catch up to where we need to be. Whether that’s financially or facilities, we all know that we have work to do to get it to where we want to be to give our guys the chances that we want to give them and have the program that we want.  To me, that’s the part that we’re straining over. We worked on it during the COVID shutdown and raising some money during tough times. We’re doing some fantastic things that will directly benefit our kids that I’m really proud of and worked really hard to do. We had help from Charlie Phlegar, who has been an incredibly selfless person to help us with that. That’s the part where we have to continue to push forward and develop this program. It’s not just how much our kids bench press or what their grades are, it’s pushing this whole program forward.

On the defense’s improvement…

We need to get to practice. One of the things that, in retrospect, I should have done better is that when we’re in a stretch of nine straight games, when you look at the end of those, we were a slow football team. I feel like we left our team on the practice field, but I knew we needed to practice because we had been so far behind. I knew we needed the work, especially on the defensive side of the ball. When I turn on the film, I saw that we were just running out of steam.

Then, I look at us play, and I’m obviously I’m not happy with losing to Clemson, but you look at us play and it’s obvious that we were a much fresher and faster football team (after the bye week). How could I have managed those nine weeks better so we could have made it through there smoother? I kept coming back to how much practice we missed and how much we needed it.

I think JHam has learned a lot on the job, and you’ll hear from him today. Cornelsen continues to grow and get better. There’s no shortage of ideas in that room, there’s really accomplished coaches in there. It’s JHam’s job to pare it down and have it all fit together. I felt by the end of the year, certainly in the last game, I felt like we were surging in terms of getting it all to fit together.

On the McDonald twins…

I’m really excited about those guys. These are guys I’ve known about for some time. I was hopeful to get to watch them play their senior year, but they’re really high-character, long, talented guys that aren’t afraid to work. I think they’ll have a chance to develop into really quality people and quality players.

On Jermaine Waller…

He’s coming back. I anticipate him to be a full-go in our offseason program when we come back. He wasn’t ready to play, but I anticipate that he’ll be ready to come back and be a full-go. That was my meeting with him the other day, that he’ll be ready to go full speed this offseason.

On the wide receiver position…

I think we’ll be alright. I’m excited about what we’ve got and what we’ve got coming back. I don’t know what everybody will decide, but I’m really excited about what we have coming back and the development of some of our players. I’ll use Changa [Hodge] as an example. He was put in the most unfair situation that you can ever imagine. It was frustrating for him at times. When he got here, he didn’t know anybody, and we wouldn’t let him practice (due to COVID restrictions with transfers). He was going through all of the COVID stuff and then he finally god to practice with us. Then, he misses a couple of weeks and the games start coming and there’s no more time for development. Fast-forward to the bye week and he gets a little bit of work and some confidence. Over the last two weeks, he was a productive player for us. I think that’s given him a glimmer of hope of what he can be going forward, and I think he can be a really good player at this level.

We have to get Jaden Payoute back healthy. That’s a guy that I was and am over-the-moon excited about. Unfortunately, he broke his leg in fall camp. He’s really learning how to play the position. We may not have ten guys running through there, but I feel good about the guys that we’ve got.

On Tahj Bullock…

I couldn’t be more excited. He is one of the most grateful people that I’ve ever recruited. He’s grateful for the opportunity and appreciative of the opportunity to get a great education. He’s all-in for Virginia Tech without ever wavering or a doubt. He texts me more than I text him. It’s constantly, ‘Great job’ or ‘Heck of a job, Coach.’ Or ‘Get the guys going today!’ He’s an upbeat, positive person that is grateful for the opportunity. He’s ready to roll his sleeves up and start working.

On the transfer portal…

I can imagine two separate divisions in your recruiting office. It’s like the NFL with free agency and college evaluation. For us, it’s the transfer portal and high school evaluation. I could totally see that being a philosophy.

On facing criticism…

I’ve tried to bury myself in my players and give them the best chance to have success. These guys really gutted out a difficult situation. We all want to be liked. We can say those things don’t bother me, but we all have those feelings inside that we wish people liked us or said nice things about us. It always makes us feel good, but that’s part of the job. If you coach at a place where football is important to a lot of people like it is here at Virginia Tech, then you have to take the praise with the other things. That’s part of it. It probably bothers the people around me quite a bit, my parents and the people that care about me. I can always immerse myself in work and our players. It’s part of the deal.

On the decision not to play in a bowl…

Our players are aware of everything and they take it very seriously, so do our coaches and so do I. I believe that the players are the ones that have sacrificed the most, so I think they should make the decision. That’s what I did, and I said I’ll support them 100%. I painted a very realistic picture of what it may look like or what it would look like the best that I could. I think it came down to, there was nothing we could do to recreate what happened with our team last week, and they’re tired. It’s been really difficult, and I think their mental health is something that we really need to take into consideration. They’ve sacrificed enough and I support them 100%. I hate the fact that there are a lot of other things at play in that, but the bottom-line is that I’m going to support our players.

On whether he felt like he was fighting for his job…

No. I wouldn’t say that I would use that term. I would use the term, talking about what we’re doing. I didn’t feel that way.

On Jaden Keller…

I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I’m excited to get him there. He’s not into all of that recruiting stuff, and there’s a lot of people that came in that tried to sway him to not come here. This is where he wanted to be. It’s going to be fun to see. I don’t know if he’ll be in the alley or closer to the football, but he’s physical and strong and has a chance to be a really good player. He’s in the line of guys that we try to get on the defensive side of the ball. We try to recruit some guys that we aren’t positive where they’re going to be. We’ll get him in here and see, but we’re excited about him. I feel very fortunate to get him, as I do with everybody that signed. I feel great about our evaluation process. Many of these kids we had in camp. We had them identified early in the process. I feel very fortunate that he’s coming.

On recruiting guys from outside the area…

Lofton plays for Joseph Turner and I was his running backs coach at TCU. Joe and I go way back, obviously. He’s one of my favorite kids that I coached and I’m so proud that he’s grown up and got married and has kids and he’s coaching football in Texas. I had a pretty good in there. We got pretty close with Mr. Lofton there.

D.J. Harvey, all the way out to California, but he had some ties out to this side of the country. He’s just a really fun kid to be around and talk to. We turned over stones and found him. He expressed some serious interest in us. It was one of those deals where you’re just thinking, ‘We’ll see.’ The longer it went on, the better we felt about him as a person and his family and the chances of him to come to Virginia Tech.

Kenji Christian is a state champion in Alabama on a fantastic football team. He was one of the early guys that we felt had size and explosion. We knew we would have to do battle with a bunch of teams down there, but he was one of our early guys that we identified, and we look forward to getting him up here.

On recruiting during COVID…

The one I’m really worried about is the next [class]. With this one, so many of these guys came to camp early or we saw play as younger players that I feel good about. If this thing continues on through the summer and there’s no camp, the next class, in terms of evaluation, is going to be really difficult. There are certainly things that I wish we were able to do, as every program does, but many of these guys, we had spent a lot of time on as younger players.

On talking to kids about his job status…

We talked about it with some guys. It was pretty easy. I just told them the truth about what we were doing and where we were going. I don’t know that, maybe Whit would disagree, but I met with Whit every single week, so I knew where he was at. I knew where he was at heading into that meeting. It’s not like I went in there totally blindfolded. I appreciate that and that made it easier to handle all of these guys.

On speaking to the other team during press conferences…

When I give the Monday press conference, I know that the opposing coach is going to pull up the transcript or the video and look for something to use. The exact same way that I’m going to go look at his and go all the way through it. In this one, I’m not doing that, but in the season, I’m talking to the head coach of the school I’m playing and the whole team. He’s going to pick and choose what he wants them to know. That’s why I’m pretty measured because in my mind, I’m envisioning everything I say being played to his entire team.

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10 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I’m very much on board with Coach Fuente at this time. I see a lot more humility and a commitment to this program. Let’s take a good look at our deficiencies in position coaching and recruiting, whatever it might be, and address them.
    Honest organizational upgrades are needed. I believe he can win but may have to make a few changes.

  2. We all are best when we are all together …The decision to keep coach has been made …I hope that the hokies who are still on the dock will get on the ship with the rest of us …we need everyone fighting for the same goal now ….go hokies ✌️

  3. There’s one suggestion I’d make if CJF doesn’t make any changes to his staff. I would have the OC try and get Bud Foster involved in helping him devise his game plan. I was shocked years ago when I heard our OC say he never sought advice from our DC (Foster). What better resource could there be in finding ways to attack a defense than talk to a person who was considered to of the the best in the field.

    1. It’s called coaches ego. I bet some of the best teams in college and pro’s coordinators seek help from their counter on the other side of the ball to help with advice on attacking other teams and how other teams based on perceived vulnerability might attack them.

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