Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente spoke with Jon Laaser and Mike Burnop on Tech Talk Live on Monday. The trio recapped the Hokies’ close loss to Syracuse and looked ahead to Georgia Tech.
On the defensive struggles:
We didn’t play as well as we’ve played, defensively. We got into trouble in our pressure packages. We really wanted to be aggressive this week. We held up okay in base defense and when we tried to pressure we just didn’t do a very good job fitting the run. Then we lose a corner here or there and you get to the end of the game and we certainly struggled. That’s the first time we’ve struggled like that this year, I think, on defense. The offense played better. It’s still their job to score one more point than the opposing team. One more first down, and we salt that thing away.
On Malachi Thomas’ performance and giving him a ton of carries:
Well, we just made a concerted effort. Said okay, enough of this ‘playing him a little bit.’ Let’s get him in there and let him go, because he’s been really good in practice. In order, obviously, for him to go in, somebody’s gotta come out. Some of those older guys didn’t get to play as much and Malachi made the most of it. I just think he’s a ballplayer. I watch him everyday in practice.
This is a guy that plays on special teams, he’s on our punt return unit, he’s on our kickoff unit. He can play defense. He’s just a ballplayer. He made the most of his opportunities. I really felt like in the first half, he was finishing forward. The difference between second and eight and second and six is huge for an offense. I really felt like, for the most part when he was in there, if we weren’t ripping off big runs, we were still staying on the chains, on pace to get a first down with him in there.
On Thomas’ role going forward:
I would say that he deserves a chance to continue to carry the ball. He was really incredibly productive, did a real good job, and seems to have a nice knack for the inside zone.
On struggles stopping Syracuse’s run game:
The thing that I do think in retrospect, not that you can do anything about it. We know that kid, the quarterback. He went to Mississippi State. He’s from Charlotte. He’s a big, good athlete. He’s a faster player than maybe we thought, when you get on the field. There’s a couple times where he’s running away from Alan Tisdale. Well, Alan Tisdale can run now. That certainly provided problems for us and trying to get him on the ground, whether it’s in the passing game or in the quarterback run game.
On the long kick return from Syracuse late in the game:
That’s a tough pill to swallow when you go ten years basically stoning people on your kickoff unit and you have a nine-point lead with five minutes to go and you give up the longest return you’ve had as a head coach. That’s a pretty tough pill to swallow. When you go back and look at it – I mean, we are getting a little thin at some personnel, but we actually fit the return the right way. Without getting too technical, we tried to make the return go sideways as opposed to going downhill. The guys that are in charge of getting it to bounce towards the sidelines, towards the home sidelines there, did their job. It bounced to our free hat, or our guy that’s not blocked to go make the tackle, and that position, every year, leads our kickoff coverage unit in tackles, because it’s really designed – not that nobody else can make a tackle – but it’s designed for him to be able to make the play.
He just had too much space between where the blocks were spilled and where the carrier was and he was too far back, thus increasing the difficulty of the tackle, dramatically. We want to use the sideline as the twelfth defender and go inside out on it, and he found himself in a very difficult situation because there was so much space. We missed a tackle and then it was scramble mode to try and get the guy on the ground.
Did Romo miss the kick on the long return?
Again, it’s a whole eleven-person job. We want to kick the ball outside the hash, so we put the ball on the left hash and we want to kick it deep left and that ball drifted towards the middle and was a little bit short. There’s a bunch of different things. He’s been great, don’t get me wrong. They’re not going to kick every single one out or to the left. Those things are going to happen. When they do happen, we’d like to get [the return man] on the ground quicker.
On the game-winning touchdown for Syracuse:
We are in a coverage where we did not have a bust, you know what I mean. We’re not unsound in the play, but what bothers you is we had adjusted it to check to a different coverage in that look and we did not check it, so it left us in one-on-one out there. The guy made an incredible throw and catch, as he was getting hit. The right guard just turns our defensive tackle loose and it’s a bang-bang play, but it just disappoints you that you didn’t get the check into the coverage that the coaches wanted us to be in.
On run game success and moving Silas Dzansi to left tackle after Luke Tenuta went down:
I was proud of Silas and how he played and we’ll need him to continue to play at a high-level. He did a really good job filling in there. It’s hard to replace a guy like Luke, because he is such a good player and he’s played so many snaps for so long for us, not just this year but in the past years. Silas didn’t miss a beat, jumped right in there and I didn’t see much drop off in terms of the running game when he was in there.
On the blocked and returned extra point:
Well, it was a huge play. We’ve been giving great effort on our field goal/PAT field goal block unit. J.C. Price coaches that unit and takes a lot of pride in it, and those guys have done a really good job. It was nice that they got the reward, that we finally got one blocked, because we’ve been pretty close on more than one occasion. Then it was kind of a mad scramble. The first thing I thought of when Syracuse picked it up was, ‘oh, don’t run it in.’ Like that would be just great, like we blocked the field goal and they pick it up and run it in, that’s kind of what went through my mind. I think TyJuan [Garbutt], I may be wrong on this, but I think TyJuan went to tackle him and punched it out. Of course, people on the sidelines – J.C. was pretty excited. He was about to the numbers.
We’re trying to hold people back and I got JWill [Jafar Williams] like right behind me like pushing me forward, everybody’s wanting to celebrate. We’re trying to hold them off the field and you see Dorian [Strong] just reach down and pick it up and head down the sidelines, and I thought it was great. You saw Chamarri, who blocked it, like he has a chance to make the only block we really need to spring Dorian, but it’s a perfect opportunity for a blindside block and a penalty, which would’ve brought it all back. He just clipped the guy, he didn’t drill him, and sprung Dorian all the way, and I don’t think Dorian was worth a darn for the next twenty minutes. He was just throwing up, trying to breathe and all that kind of stuff.
On that return kick being the difference between a win and a loss if the last-second Syracuse touchdown didn’t happen:
The way things are laid out every single play is going to matter. If you think about it, we completed a ball in the middle of the field on the last drive and got a chance to throw the ball into the endzone and tip the ball and almost pulled out the miracle of miracles. Again, the reason I bring that up is I think it speaks to the character and the work ethic and the buy-in that our kids have is that they’re basically in front of sixty-thousand people, just got our guts ripped out and they’re still fighting and scratching and clawing, trying to find a way to go win the game.
On the confusion before the half:
I was frustrated with the officials. When I was trying to communicate with them afterwards, I don’t feel like they understood what I was saying, maybe I should’ve done a better job communicating it. Essentially, they’re down there, it’s tight, it’s the end of the half, there’s not much time, they throw a fade. They’re short a player, they get him lined up, they take a timeout. Then they’re going to run their field goal unit on and then they run them off and they run the offense on and the refs give us a chance to sub. There’s a lot that goes into that. We have actually offensive guys on our PAT block unit – okay, well they don’t play defense, but they go in there to help block field goals.
Well, they’ve got to come off and we’ve got to get the right personnel, plus we’ve got to know what personnel the offense is in. They come in and there’s only nine guys on the field, there’s only nine Syracuse offensive players. They run two guys in, one comes to the field to our sidelines, and the other one goes to their sidelines but never comes inside the numbers. If you come off the sidelines and come into the game, you have to come inside the numbers. That keeps them from hiding a guy out over there on the corner and just throwing him the ball and having him run.
He doesn’t come in, so he just runs up and gets lined up and our defense is in scramble mode to get lined up and figure out the personnel and [Justin Hamilton] is going, ‘take a timeout, take a timeout, take a timeout,’ because they should hold the ball and the ref was over the ball but he wasn’t over it very long once those guys ran in, and he backed up and they were ready to snap the ball. So we took the timeout and then they lined up to kick the field goal and then missed the field goal, so it’s a much to do about nothing, I guess.
Do you think that rule should be changed to stop the clock?
There is some gamesmanship in the substitution part of that. You could run the play clock down, like it happens to some offenses. If you substitute, they will keep you from snapping the ball while the other team gets an opportunity to substitute with you. If they think you’re abusing that, defensively, then you can be warned and flagged, but there is a little bit of that that can go on. We weren’t going to sub, but it was, ‘do we have everybody covered?’ They just stepped a guy in off the sidelines. That was kind of the situation we were in.
On the confusion of the situation:
It was confusing because even when I tried to explain it to the referee, they did hold the snap when the offense came on and the field goal unit came off, I was not upset about that, they did that right. But when the offense came on and there’s only nine guys and then a guy steps in off the sidelines, like I’m not real interested in y’all letting them snap the ball real fast, like let’s take a deep breath.
What do you tell the team to help them block out the outside noise?
I think the refusal to be a victim is part of it. If we don’t put our best… if we sit around and complain about our circumstances or how close we were or how far away we were or who doesn’t know what they’re doing or does know what they’re doing or all of those things, then we’re allowing ourselves to play the victim card. I think that we should try, to the best of our ability, to teach our young people to refuse to do that and to control what we can control and if we don’t put our best foot forward, we’re just proving everybody right.
There are a lot of kids on our team that are incredibly high-character, that have a tremendous amount invested in this program. They want to do the absolute best they can, regardless of what anybody else says. I think you just have to do your best to talk to them, knowing that it’s just different than it used to be. That’s just kind of the way it goes.
On building the offense’s confidence up last week:
I’ll probably stay over there. I felt like I needed to be a little more involved in their emotional well-being. I just had a couple meetings with them during the week and tried to challenge them and showed them how they had played early in the year and tried to get somebody to give me one good reason why they couldn’t play that way again, because we can use a million excuses, but the bottom line is there’s no reason we can’t and they did. They went out there and played much better and I hope that we can continue that. I hope we have instilled a little confidence in what we can go do.
On the touchdown pass to Drake Deluliis and his thoughts on the tight end group:
That’s what running the ball can do for you. When you can run the ball like that and you can apply pressure to the defense, you can slip the tight end behind some people and get him wide open. It was good to see Drake. Drake’s been here a long time. I think it’s a great testament to him that he is, in this era of transferring and all that sort of stuff, he’s had Dalton Keene come in, he had James Mitchell come in, and he’s playing a huge role in what we’re doing right now and playing pretty well. I’ve been really pleased with those guys. They don’t always get to do the things that show up in the box score or that get accolades, but they certainly helped us run the football the other day.
On the impact of Jermaine Waller’s absence:
Jermaine is such a good player, it certainly is difficult, and it hurts you, too, because you get into your dime package and we’ve played quite a bit of that. It just stretches you a little bit more thin. The good news is we have guys that have played a lot. Through all that stuff last year, through COVID, Brion [Murray] got a tremendous amount of work, Dorian [Strong] got a bunch of work as a true freshman, Armani [Chatman] played the whole season.
So we have some good experience back there, but Jermaine, I thought through the first half of the season, was the best player on our team. I hope that he’s healthy mentally and physically and emotionally, and I hope he can play this week and on down the road.
On going for it on fourth down late in the third quarter instead of trying for a field goal:
I felt like we knew what they were going to be in defensively. We had a good call and I felt like there was going to be a lot of back and forth in this one. I didn’t feel great about how we were playing or tackling or doing any of that stuff and it’s just a long field goal. When you know what you’re get and you know you’re gonna get a chance to maybe throw it to one of your best players, you kinda roll the dice there.
On the defensive struggles stopping opposing offenses on fourth down:
Some of them have been short yardage, quarterback sneak-type deals, and some of them, it’s the darn quarterback running the ball. It’s just killed us. The last two weeks, those guys have just run around and made some plays.
Do you return the ball when it’s kicked to you or call for a fair catch with 19 seconds left?
I think it depends on a lot of factors. I think that’s a really good offensive play for us, is returning a kick. If there’s five seconds, yeah. You’ve gotta either pitch it around or fair catch it and bring your offense in and pitch it around. With 19 seconds, I’m good with taking that chance because we’ve been pretty good in that area. I feel pretty good about what we do and how we teach it. They were worried about us on kickoff return. They had a really good kickoff unit and we missed some real opportunities to really, really hurt them, in my opinion, but that’s something we talk about every single time. I feel like it’s a good offensive play for us.
On Georgia Tech’s defense:
Well, they’ve basically changed everything that they do defensively to more of this 3-3-5 alignment. I guess you could probably say a little bit of carryover from last week. Not totally the same, but some similarities there. Kind of a unique way to go about it. It’s a scheme that kind of originated, I think, with Iowa State in the Big 12 and now it’s kind of making its way across the country. A little bit unique with some good personnel. They certainly understand what they’re trying to accomplish on the defensive side of the ball, even though it’s vastly different than when we played them two years ago.
On Georgia Tech’s offense and quarterback Jeff Sims:
The first thing that jumps out at you when you watch them play on offense is their tailback and their quarterback. They can really run and they’re dangerous and they have big-play capabilities. And I don’t mean that Jeff can’t throw the ball, he certainly can, but the athleticism they’ve got in their backfield is top notch.
On playing on the road again:
I think there’s a little bit of an element of packing up and taking the show on the road. There’s just less things that come with that. There are less ticket requests. There’s less people sleeping in your basement. There’s less people sleeping on your couch. That’s just the way it goes when you’re on the road. It’s a little bit of a getaway. We’ve got to get an early wakeup and get ready to go. We don’t have much time to mess around because we’re kicking off at noon.
On Georgia Tech’s special teams and return game:
Yeah, you go back to their skill players and you start to see how the kickoff return is a pretty dangerous unit. You kind of respond from the last kick we covered. We’ve got to go back to putting on tape the way that we’ve covered kicks for ten or eleven years now.
On John Parker Romo’s consistency after a rocky start to the season:
He’s made some long field goals. Early in the year, there were a couple shorter ones that I think these kicking people tell me that alignment is some type of fundamental thing that seems to be fixed now. He seems to be really hitting the ball solid and hitting it well and he’s been a good weapon for us.
On Virginia Tech being the least penalized team in FBS:
I didn’t know that. Maybe we need some more, I guess, I don’t know. I do think we have a smart football [team]. That’s kind of what frustrates me the most is we’ve played in these close games and I think we have this situationally intelligent football team and we have avoided so many of the things that cause you to lose football games, like huge turnover numbers and huge penalties and all these things that you see that take away team’s opportunities to win, before they even get started. Knock on wood.
By-in-large, we haven’t had those, and I think that’s what drives you nuts as a coach because those are things that I’m trying to get us to do. Offense, defense, special teams, all that kind of stuff, but how do we play as a team and how do are we a smart football team and giving great effort and avoiding silly penalties and all those sorts of things and we’ve been doing those things, and I just want our guys to get rewarded for those things by just executing just a little bit better on one side of the ball or the other.
Have you ever had a year in your career where you’ve had this many tightly-packed heartbreakers in that short amount of time?
No. I don’t want to either. I don’t want to go back through it. It’s just been truly unique and I really believe if we just get a little breakthrough here, we’ll gain a little bit more confidence in those in-game scenarios and take off.