Tech Talk Live Notes: Justin Fuente Previews Notre Dame

Justin Fuente sat down with Evan Hughes and Mike Burnop on TTL to discuss the bye week and Notre Dame. (Ivan Morozov)

How was the bye week?

We had a great week. We set out some goals that we were trying to get accomplished as a team for our bye week. I think we took some steps forward in that direction. Everybody on the staff and as players enjoyed a Saturday off. No work, just relaxation, and then back at it Sunday morning.

On the process of evaluating themselves during the bye week:

Basically, it’s like a homework assignment. We walk in there on Sunday after the Richmond game and say, ‘OK, here’s the plan for practice. Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going to practice the young players.’ I say young, y’all know who it is, the players that haven’t played very much, we’re going to practice them Tuesday and Wednesday, we’re going to practice everybody Thursday. On Friday, all of our coaches are on the road recruiting. Saturday, we’ll be off and Sunday, we’re having our Tuesday practice for Notre Dame. And in the meantime, on Monday, I want us in all three phases of the game to watch every snap we’ve played and I want an evaluation of what we’ve done well, what we’ve done poorly, what we need to improve on. I want that from your side of the ball. I want that from your individual position. So that we have a clear look at where we are.

Some of the things you can’t do anything about, you’re in the middle of season. What can we do to give ourselves the best chance to have success moving forward? And then also who do we need to work and what do we need to see from these young players in the next two days. They went through all that. We had good discussions about it and read their write-ups and talked about all that sort of stuff and then turned our attention to the young players and then ultimately recruiting and Notre Dame.

On what the team learned:

Well, I don’t know that there were any huge surprises. I mean, we’ve got to become more efficient in some areas. I mean, some of the things are fairly obvious. Coming to some conclusion on how we’re going to handle the offensive line, continuing to rotate our defensive lineman. I like our guys there, we’ve got quality players there, we just don’t have an overabundance of numbers there so we’ve gotta continue to work to keep those guys fresh. We talked a little bit about Dean [Ferguson] and Keshon [Artis] at linebacker, continuing to play some to alleviate a little bit of the pressure on Alan [Tisdale] and Dax [Hollifield]. And then trying to develop some of our young players in the secondary, trying to develop some of our young players at wide receiver.

In the kicking game, we’ve been in pretty good shape and the return game. Our kickoff returns, our punt returns have been coming around and have been pretty efficient. Our coverage units have been good. We have not been tested on our punt coverage unit yet. We haven’t faced anybody that’s even really even tried to return the ball, we will this week, so that’ll be an interesting challenge for us. We’ve got to find a way to get more production and play more efficiently at the quarterback position.

Will the offensive line be the same configuration as the one against Richmond?

I don’t know. We’ll see. Where we’re at numbers-wise, we’ve got to do a good job of creating artificial depth. As much as I’d like to just lock everybody down in one spot, we’re going to have to give ourselves some position flexibility in order to make it through the season. Getting everybody back healthy, continuing to get work for young players, like Parker Clements, who continues to come along, I think is going to be important. I’m not sure exactly how they’re going to trot out there and I’m not being coy. Silas [Dzansi], if he’s healthy, certainly factors in that. I kind of liked the lineup we had last week with those guys moved down. I don’t know that we’ll have just one set way that we’re going to do things for the rest of the year.

On the details that go into the offensive line’s footwork and hand placement:

I don’t know, and I’ve never blocked anybody in my life. There’s so much about it that is technique driven. They really have a complicated job. If you run one offensive play, one run play, and you run it against four different defenses, well now that’s four plays. Well, if you run it both right and left, now it’s eight plays, so you’re on the front side and the back side versus different [defenses], so the looks compound themselves and they all require a different technique. They are the worst athletes on the field, playing a very important position and not that they’re not good athletes for their size, but in comparison. So their technique has got to be really good to give them a chance to have success.

On Tayvion Robinson’s success in the punt return game:

Well, I think we all appreciate it a little bit more after the season he had last year. He comes in there as a true freshman two years ago and I’m a little concerned about putting him back there, I know he’s the most talented guy, but [you’re still] putting a true freshman back there. If y’all remember, I think we put him back there in the Wake Forest game to start the second half and he had a really big return and kind of just owned the position for the rest of that year. Then last year with COVID, got off to a rough start and struggled and his confidence was down and all those sorts of things. [He] had a great offseason. Worked his tail off. He’s in the best shape of his life. He’s stronger than he’s ever been, more confident. When you watch him out there playing, you realize how important that stuff is for the development of young players. We’re reaping some of the benefits of it right now because he’s really spectacular.

Did any of the guys take a teammate home for fall break?

Well, I’m sure they did. They all kind of team up a little bit and some go home by themselves and some take kinda pity on guys that are from far away, that can’t make it all the way home and kinda tag up and go back and relax and have a good time. There’s usually full carloads of guys, which as a coach always makes me nervous. I just sound like my own mom, I mean, I go, ‘leave in plenty of time’ and ‘don’t text while you’re driving’ and all those things that are true, but that you find yourself, you just become your parents when you get a little bit older. We made it all back safely and on time and I think they had some good time getting away a little bit.

Did you get a sense the guys had their batteries recharged?

Oh, they did. We looked fresh [on Sunday]. We had fresh legs and we looked good out there. We tried to go in the stadium. I’ve always liked going when we have a big practice on Sunday evening, when we haven’t played the week before. I’ve always, historically, liked to go in the stadium at night, it’s a little bit cooler and it just poured down rain on us and a couple of the guys were begging for us to stay in the stadium while it was pouring down rain so we could practice in the rain. The head coach didn’t have his rain gear so we went inside and got really good work, though. It was really good and the guys had a lot of juice and they understand that this is a big one coming up.

On the team’s recruiting staff:

Well, J.C [Price] has been fantastic. He’s been recruiting this state for – I don’t know how many years – for a long time and is deeply rooted in the 757 and in Richmond. Ryan Smith has done a fantastic job and we’re reaping the benefits of having really good in-state recruiters. Jack [Tyler] is in northern Virginia and Adam [Lechtenberg] has got a little bit of some of those areas too. The reception’s been great. I think we’re making huge headway. We’ve got a little bit of work to do, we’ll see how this thing all shakes out. It’s like we’re going shopping but I don’t know how much money we have in our bank account, because of the scholarship situation and all that. Everybody’s got an extra year. So I don’t know how all of that’s gonna shake out but the reception’s great. I always love that. I love going to the high school football games. I got to go to two: one early and one at 7 o’clock. I mean, there’s just nothing better than that. I just have an absolute blast when we get to go and hang out and watch some ball.

On Kaleb Smith’s confidence after making big plays the last few weeks:

Well, I think it’s been big for him. It’s just been a matter of time. I say this, what I’m going to say now, I’ve said in front of the team and I’ve said to Kaleb, but Kaleb has just worked his way into being a good football player. To be honest with you, it started on special teams and he was not good, but he took the coaching, he continued to work and then he started to be a huge impact player for us in the core special teams. Core special teams for us are the guys that do the grunt work. The guys that do the blocking. Everybody talks about Tayvion [Robinson] on the punt return, but Kaleb’s the one out there blocking. Kaleb’s been really good on our kickoff return unit.

So anyway, he started to get some confidence there. Well, then he started playing more on offense and then he starts playing without the ball in his hands really well. And then, all the sudden, he starts making plays and getting some opportunities for some contested catches and his confidence continues to grow. We continue to recognize him in terms of within the team for all of the selfless acts that he does, the way he plays without the ball in his hands, and when his opportunities do come his way, making those can do nothing but help him and ultimately help the team.

How many recruits are coming to the Notre Dame game?

We’ll have as many as we can handle. It’ll be over a hundred kids, easy. It’ll be a really big day, some really good players will be there. As soon as we get done with Hokie walk, for the next hour, hour and fifteen minutes, it’ll be all recruiting. Our staff will do a great job organizing it and handling it, but it’s going to be a big night for us. Our first big night was the North Carolina game and that was a Friday, so that probably cut our numbers. We probably had a quarter of the really, really good players that we would’ve normally had, had it been on either a Thursday or a Saturday. But the fact it was on Friday kind of hurt our numbers there, but there’s no excuse for this one. There’ll be a bunch of really good players and families and I’m looking forward to showing off Virginia Tech.

On the extra work the young guys got in last week:

They did, and I’m excited about them. I’ve talked about Jalen [Stroman] quite a bit. I just think he’s going to be a really good player. We need him to continue to come on, not because there’s anything wrong with Tae Daley, Jalen just to continue to develop. We’re going to call upon him, it’s going to happen. We just know it is, some way, somehow, he’s gonna end up playing a huge role this year.

Jaylen Jones is one my heart has ached for because he’s worked his way into the rotation and he’s just been hurt. He had a hamstring that he was trying to get over, he got over it, looked great and then kind of re-injured it so he’s getting a little frustrated. He’s a guy that is ready to get into the rotation. I’m talking about play half the time and really get in the mix and that’s been good for us. And then [Wilfried] Pene is a guy that we moved to the defensive line then we moved him inside and he took full advantage of those two days of work. He really showed up. He got a bunch of reps and he took full advantage of them.

Did you expect all three phases of the game to be where they are now at the beginning of the year?

I was pretty accurate on special teams thus far. The concerns I had going in are still my concerns. The things that I’m excited about, I thought we would be excited, we had a chance to be good about, on special teams. We’ve been better defensively. [In] fall camp, I felt good about our personnel and what our scheme was trying to do, but it hadn’t really come together. I felt like we were pretty far along offensively versus the defense in fall camp. So we’ve been much better there. We haven’t been nearly as efficient as I thought we would be or I hoped that we would be on the offensive side of the ball. One I think I was spot on and the other two I was off on both ends of the spectrum.

How impressed have you been with Peter Moore?

Peter’s been fantastic when it comes to punting the ball. He’s not going to get many more opportunities to throw it. But when it comes to punting it, he’s just been incredible. And I give Peter a hard time about that just because, and I told Peter this right when it happened, I said, ‘Peter, that’s on me, you go punt the ball, that can’t ruin the rest of your day.’ And Peter just kicked the snot out of it. He’s been really good, he’s a great kid. First of all, he’s fun to be around. He’s pretty serious but I enjoy challenging Peter, I enjoy being around Peter. He’s been a huge addition to our team this season.

How important will it be to play complimentary football this weekend?

One hundred percent. I mean, everybody talks about, ‘we have to run the ball and stop the run and we can’t turn the ball over’ and that’s true, but the hidden yardage is so big when you play good people. That is downing punts in the red zone, not letting the ball go into the endzone. That’s covering kicks, eliminating return yardage. That’s flipping the field. That’s not taking penalties on returns. A perfect example is we took a penalty last week on punt return. It ended up being a seventy yard penalty, because Tayvion returned it all the way down to the twenty, they called a holding penalty on us, which was a good call, by the way. But they called it before we caught the ball so they took it back from where he caught it, not from where the foul took place. It ended up being a seventy yard penalty. That’s a huge thing, right.

Winning those things, having confidence in your red zone punting, we work on it every single Tuesday, knowing that you’re going to get that downed and you don’t have to try and kick a fifty-seven yarder on fourth and nine in the first quarter. But knowing you can down that punt and the defense can go take the field, those are huge things in terms of game management and also hidden yardage in the game.

On the defensive line doing a good job of creating opportunities for the linebackers:

Well, I guess so. I know those guys like getting in the backfield and wreaking havoc. In order to get to rush the passer, all those d-line guys they always like rushing the passer, but in order to get to rush the passer, especially in college football, you gotta stop the run. Sometimes that entails not letting a guard or a center get off to the linebackers so that the linebackers can make the plays, I just think our overall understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish by the players has increased tenfold. I think we’re in a really good place of understanding how each person’s single piece fits into the puzzle and that’s allowed us to play much better.

On the TyJuan Garbutt’s impact:

Ty has just been – his grades are better than ever – he’s just so much fun to be around, to give a hard time. Coaches don’t do this to be jerks, we do this because we like being around young people. We enjoy their personalities. Yeah, we want to make sure they do things the right way and we want to make sure they learn lessons to help them down the road, but ultimately we’re all just kids inside anyway that never grew up. We like being around them too and Ty is just one of the most enjoyable players and you’re seeing it in his play now. He plays with reckless abandonment. He’s finally got enough weight on him that he can play the position and be effective and he’s just been truly a feel good story this year.

On Amare Barno’s impact:

They know where he’s at every play, I can tell you that much. And he’s coming into his own as a pass rusher. He’s providing us with so many more things that aren’t always centered around rushing the passer. He’s made so many effort plays that you have to really watch the coaches film to see and really marvel at his speed and his effort, because he’s just a special player. I know I said it last year, he’s still figuring this whole thing out.

What jumps out at you about Notre Dame?

Well, I mean, watching the Cincinnati game, just live on television, the first thing I was struck by was what a difficult, hard game that was. That was a game where four yards was really valuable. They are very, very good on defense. And they have, by Notre Dame’s standards, struggled a little bit on the offensive side of the ball. They played three quarterbacks last week. They’re dealing with all that sort of stuff but this is a really well-coached, tough football team that has some really talented players, that just lost a really tough game. I would’ve preferred that they beat Cincinnati by fifty and spent all week hearing how good they are, instead of being mad, but that’s not the way it worked out.

They’ll certainly be ready to play when they come in here and this is going to be a tough, hard-fought game that we’ve gotta be prepared to do whatever it takes to win the game. And when I say that I mean, if that’s run it sixty-five times, if that’s throw it sixty-five times, if that’s make a goal-line stand, if that’s a two-minute drive, if that’s defending a two-minute drive. Whatever it is, we can’t be surprised. We’ve got to understand it’s going to be an all-day affair and we’ve got to be emotionally ready to play the next play.

On Notre Dame’s struggles in the run game:

The first thing I would say is, in the last two years, they’ve had great offensive lines come through there, and many of those guys are in the National Football League. And no matter what you do, it’s hard to keep up with that, year in and year out. They have talented players, they just don’t have as much experience, this is just my opinion, that aren’t as experienced as the guys they had. For two years in a row, they had an older, experienced, and talented offensive line. These guys are talented, they’re just not as experienced.

Whenever you have uncertainty at the quarterback position, it affects all phases of the game. It affects your defense, it affects your offense. We don’t want it to. It affects your run game. But it does, and that leads to a little bit of unsettling times and they do want to throw the football. They don’t want to throw it sixty times a game, but they’re built a little bit different. It’s not because they don’t have explosive, talented backs, I can tell you that much.

On Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree:

This is a kid that was a track kid. Really put some impressive times in the indoor meets and the hundred meters. Great family, great kid. He’s a kick returner for them and shares some time at tailback. He’s not a large statured person, but he is lightning fast. If you give him a little crease, he’s gonna make you pay.

On Notre Dame’s defense:

They single-handedly outscored Wisconsin. They scored more points on defense than Wisconsin did on offense. They create havoc. It’s centered around man coverage, but multiple looks, multiple fronts, pressure packages; they’re not gonna stand still. They’re going to come after you and they’re going to try and create negative plays and they’re going to get some. They are a risk-reward group and you combine that with really talented, active players, some of which have a lot of experience and you got a group that’s pretty good.

Before last week, they’d played two weeks in a row where they’d given up thirteen points. One of the games, they’d scored more than the other team’s offense on defense. I was really impressed with Cincinnati’s quarterback. I knew he was a good player, but I don’t think I had seen him play in a couple years and I thought he was the difference in that game for them, making plays and keeping drives alive. They played pretty well defensively.

On Notre Dame Tight End Michael Mayer:

Yeah, he’s special. I mean, he really is. He reminds me of the guy that we have that won’t be dressing out for us, unfortunately. He’s just a big, strong kid and we could tell. We saw him as a freshman and it was pretty obvious that he had a unique skill set. [He’s] really the center or the focus of what they’re trying to do in the passing game.

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  1. Some of the snarky comments on the boards took cogent comments completely out of context, e.g., hidden yards.

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