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Virginia Tech Hokies: Looking at the Long Summer before Football

So, it's Summer break. What now? Hokie Football Fans have a bunch to think about. The players might be working out but the Coaches are going to be busy. GC looks at some of the expectations from the last poll.

Big Trophy last year for a disappointing season.  Should we have greater expecations?
Big Trophy last year for a disappointing season. Should we have greater expecations?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The school year is over. Gobbler Country's Joe Roy-Stewart has given us a peek at what the football team can expect to be doing over the Summer months.  Joshua Schneider has started his summer positional recruiting series with a look at running backs drawing some interest.  Most of the dorms are pretty much vacant, with the usual swap out of Summer school students, camp participants, and special event staff operating on the East side of campus.  The Town of Blacksburg is about to tune down to the late Spring and Summer schedule where most of the streets roll up by 7:00 PM and the big event is the Independence Day celebration at the Municipal Park.

Football will be the last thing on most folks' minds, right?  Well, maybe most of us out in Hokie Nation land as we attend to project wrap ups, work deliverables, vacation planning, and other life/work details.  What I do know in my bones is that Justin Fuente and his staff will be doing more than moving in, getting their families settled, and various community events explored.  There is much more work to be done, and most of it is not lifting, running, conditioning, rehabbing, or studying for Summer classes to get the credits back up to speed.

My old football fan brain tells me that Coach Fuente and staff are doing some serious research and organizing.  After the Spring practice and game, it is pretty much impossible to avoid a few critical conclusions about where the program is and what needs to be done to get it back to a more positive winning posture.

Back on May 3rd, we looked at the Final Coaching Observations and included a poll.  Sometimes we go back and talk about the interesting perspective that the polls can give us.  This particular poll was really worthy of a little result analysis:

Based on the Spring Game, does this look like a buildup year, or does Hokie Nation get to see a fast start?

    • 10%  -- This is a rebuild/build up season, maybe a few. (38 votes)
    • 14%  -- This is going to be a fast start, there was lots to work with. (50 votes)
    • 52%  -- It might be a build up, but it'll do better than the 6-6 we've been posting lately. (189 votes)
    • 24%  -- I'm taking it one game at a time for a while... no expectations. (86 votes)

363 votes total

What was really very interesting?  Out of the 363 votes, more than half of the voting readers picked the prudent but hopeful route that the team was going to need some rebuilding but they expected to make some positive moves toward truly winning seasons, almost immediately.  The next in line were the 24% of us (full disclosure, me included) who thought any sort of projection of hopes would be too much, and they had no expectations.  The middle ground between those two positions (I love doing polls out of order just to get some thinking going on.) were the folks voting in the 10% group for understanding that it's a rebuilding season and therefore they are willing to be patient for a few.

I would have liked a few folks to drop some comments into the response section to tell us why you voted the way that you did; but the end results are telling enough.  So, in the spirit of doing what I couldn't do then, but will do now, I will explain my presence among the neutral "taking it one game at a time" group.  There are three basic reasons for my dropping expectations; there is still not enough roster depth, Fuente's offense is still a work in progress, and I'm from Missouri (not really but it's an old phrase about "show me").

The first issue that made me vote for a no expectations season was the last two years that I have been evaluating the talent on the roster, and reading Joshua's recruiting reports.  At some points in any process there must be some objective perspective advocated.  We can be homers all we would like to be but the 2016-2017 Hokies are currently very thin.  This is my opinion, and based on the perspective that if I were the brand new head coach and assigned to grade my situation, after six months.  That evaluation wouldn't be too kind in the eyes of Homer Hokies.  The program was sorely neglected for the last five years, and recruiting results (I can't tell you about effort or method) have been less than what was necessary to sustain a top 25 football team.  The evidence is in the records since 2011, and they haven't been more than mediocre.  We have not seriously challenged for the ACC let alone at the national level since the Sugar Bowl fiasco.   My guess is what Justin Fuente found when he arrived was a starting squad of about 24 players who graded above B/B+ and could start, but the depth positions represented a precipitous drop off in capability.  There is no point in corkscrewing through talent evaluations at this point.  What Coach Fu faces, today, is a decent starting team, and a sort of Swiss cheese of underlying support.  That sort of thin structure takes real time and effort to build.  It is one key injury away from disaster; which is a problem that we have encountered too many times over the past five seasons.

The second problem is almost as daunting as the first.  Virginia Tech really had no offense of note.  There was no working theory of what Hokie offense was to be.   There didn't seem to be a real cohesive offensive scheme.  The truth is that from 1998 until 2010, Tech's offenses depended heavily on pounding the rock with decent running backs, and a scattering of open field passing/scrambling by athletic quarterbacks named Vick and Taylor.  The Sean Glennon "stork in a basket" experiment lasted only long enough to be sacked so many times people forgot he actually had a good arm.  Tech's offense just always seemed to be unimaginative or improvisational; but we got away with it because of the Special Teams and Defensive play.   Enter Coach Fuente; no offense, rickety line, a couple of solid running backs (but with critical injuries and off field issues), a pair of crackerjack receivers (Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford), a Full Back/Half Back/H-Back walk on (Sam Rogers),  and no passing quarterback on the roster.  (No offense to Brenden Motley who is a fine young man put in a tough position and performed better than expected.)  The main issue facing any transitioning head coach is to ask, "what do I have in the poke, and what am I going to need to do to fill it?"  In Coach Fuente's case, the poke sack was not very full, and he was going to need to concentrate on recruiting.  Winning this season is going to be tough enough.  What Fuente is facing is building enough talent in the depth chart to win consistently over the next 10 seasons.  Yes, that means thinking about ten year old kids who will run onto the field in 2024.  So, I do not envy Coach Fuente's job.  It's going to take several years of systematic recruiting of players from NEEDED positions, not just going out and grabbing some unnumbered level of Athletic 3 and 4 star players to man an ad hoc 4-1-6 defense while working a couple in at wide out.  This team NEEDS beef.  We need linemen, and we them to show up in the 3-deep at a talent level and regularity to keep the team above 35th range.

There is a second part of the topic of offense, and that is the question of the X's and O's variety.  These are things that almost no one will be privy to, and if they are they are sworn to secrecy.  Many playbooks have been published, long after a coach leaves a program or changes a program, but most playbooks are treated with the utmost secrecy.  The issue isn't so much the actual plays (though various grapes in the vine say that Fuente's offense is very different in key phases of the game) in the book.  There are lots of those sorts of play books with chapters of diagrams on gadgets, dives, slants, traps, rubs... you name it, there will be some page with some play or pattern set sitting in a ring binder, somewhere.  Playbooks are more than just the catalog of plays; they are the instruction book for how to build a game plan; how to execute that plan, and even how to counter specific teams with specific plays designed to defeat a particular situation.   Even some of the rudimentary play books from high school had variations depending on who the target audience was.  The Summer will be spent with film (well mp3's now) a remote, pads, paper, skull sessions, stop action, pointing and sometimes arguing.   By the end of the off months I expect that the coaching staff will have logged many miles in airplanes and rental cars.  They will spend hours on hot fields comparing notes with other coaches, always guarding their secrets, but always willing to put a reason to brag on the field.  Then back to skull sessions with more scribbling and notes.   I am willing to treat someone to a burger and fries at my favorite Blacksburg Dive, if there isn't a binder for the season, linked to a game plan binder for each team on the schedule, and in each binder is a foundational game plan to use for that team.  There'll be updates of course; but the method and tools will be laid out so that they are ready for the start of late Summer practices.

The last item on the list is the most factual.  It is the "show me" part of the equation.  There have been many coaches, even very good ones, who have rolled into a program with big plans, lots of personnel changes, plans for new this and that; but in the end the results were just not there.  For this, someone could pick up the phone and call Chip Kelly or Mike Shanahan.  There have been more than a few first off big winners whose second and third years ended up being confirmation that the first year was a complete fluke.  Check out any number of assistant coaches who reached there "Peter Principle" level at head coach, but went on to be brilliant assistants; Dick LeBeau call your office.  From what I heard in the interviews and pressers, Justin Fuente is fully aware of that trap.  He has not "overpromised" even if Hokie Nation might be doing a bit of it for him.  Let us say that we get something next season that the 52% in our poll wanted; a better than .500 season (7-5 or 8-4) and maybe a good bowl game nearer to New Year's Day.  That result is greatly preferred and desired over the prior few seasons.  However, program success is not about a single season blip.  Even if the Hokies hit the top 25 teams next season, Fuente and staff are going to have to prove that their Hokies are back to stay.  They'll prove it by following up with a better effort each succeeding year.  Okay, at some point perfection becomes the enemy of the good, or very good in this case.  The top 10 programs are in chronic demand for perfect seasons.  Where is it written in the football playbook that every season is a one game affair?   Yes, that' right, until there is a real championship tournament series, like the FCS holds, the FBS will be tied to the ridiculous 1 and 2 game season.  That means to perform at or near 1 for a sustained period, a program needs a talent pool and playbook that supports the effort.

So, program success for the Hokies needs to be a series of team goals established for the players and staff.  What also has to be set are a set of Hokie Nation expectations that are realistic and support the team.  Expecting a quarter horse to be the next Secretariat is a bit much.

In the long run, this team will greatly benefit from the new coaching staff.  I feel reasonably good about that.  I also think that Hokie Nation needs to be grounded and patient.  This team is thin.  It's not only thin for this season; it's thin for the next few.  That means we might win and we might not.  Even though this isn't a total rebuild job, it is a rebuild in critical areas; offensive design, defensive midfield, roster depth, and recruiting.  I'm going to give Coach Fuente the benefit of the doubt and not push any big expectations out there until I see where he can go with what he has, and what he's got in the works for the next four or five seasons.

The 2016 Hokies are going to be a fun team to watch.  There are going to be lots of new things to see, and some great games to attend.  Let's enjoy them one game at a time and worry about the W's and L's afterward.  I am sure that the coaching staff is putting up plans to win every game.  Let's give them a fair chance to prove they can do it.