First of all, I’m not going anywhere except maybe covering home baseball games when the season starts. Saying ‘goodbye’ refers to the 2016 year, football team, and the wonderful players that we have covered for the season. There can be little doubt that 2016 started off with much lip chewing and trepidation. Such are the facts of the human reactions to change. That change was monumental, and everyone knows the old saw that you never want to be ‘that guy’ who follows a legend. You want to be the guy who fixes things after ‘that guy’.
The 2016 season started with the promise of a new approach to a more complete football program. Justin Fuente’s opening moves of the 2016 season, late in 2015, were some rather deft tip-toe maneuvers through a potential minefield of player losses; both physical and emotional. His new offensive staff was challenged with finding a true starting quarterback, without offending the existing food chain. Michael Brewer’s departure after his eligibility expiration was a primary concern. The signing of Jerod Evans and the retention (I say re-invigoration) of Bud Foster turned out to be the two most consequential victories of the 2016 season; and they happened before the Spring Practice period.
The first move was, of course, winning over Bud Foster and keeping him happy, paid, and of maximum organizational consequence. Far from being just a continuation of Defensive Coordinator, Coach Foster was also assigned the job of Associate Head Coach. Though I am not completely sure of what that actually means within any football organization, it identified Foster as a critical piece of the entire puzzle of the organization, not just a subordinate in charge of one particular squad on the team. It meant that if Fuente was unavailable, Foster was the man. It meant that the Defense would continue to be a primary focus in a system that promised a big offensive emphasis. It also meant that Coach Foster’s players would continue under his tutelage and direction. This move retained the hearts and minds of the 2015 upperclassmen, and helped to keep the commits for defensive positions on the squad.
There were some other moral victories, Fuente seemed to find, bond with and promote several offensive players who would be of critical importance for the season. Sam Rogers, who was a Beamer Man all the way, could have become an also-ran in a high powered fast moving offense like Fuente’s reputation promised. Instead, Sam Rogers and Justin Fuente formed a fast team that pulled the rest of the upperclassmen and younger Beamer era recruits into the new system. There are few single players outside of a Quarterback who have a major effect on the entire team, that guy was Sam Rogers, this season. Commentators continually called him the “Swiss Army Knife” of the 2016 Hokie offense. There were times when many scratched their heads as to the choice of Rogers versus, say Travon McMillian in the backfield, but Sam Rogers and his relationship with Justin Fuente seemed to work like a steady thrumming diesel engine on a tugboat. There was not much elegant or explosive there; just steady hardnosed work.
Everyone understood that the tenure would be up for several key players besides Sam. Tech’s Senior class was a tad small for a Top 25 rated football squad (more about that later), but there were just too many critical names in that group to not mention a few, and how their impact changed the character of the season. Woody Baron was great this season. In prior years he was good enough, he played well when in, and other than that was largely just part of the squad. 2016 would prove a late blooming for Woody. He responded to Foster’s new energy, and Coach Wiles’s new lease on the D Line. Baron was everywhere when he was on the field. He was in the backfield harassing quarterbacks, or tackling running backs for a loss. He was pursuing plays and creating havoc from one game to the next. It was fun to watch him grab the critical turnover at the Belk Bowl. Don’t forget that he was 15 yards downfield after the play passed out of the zone. It was a great strip, but someone had to pick it up, and there with perfect technique was Woody Baron to hand the short field to the Hokie offense.
Of course the defense wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Chuck Clark – also a huge part of the Belk Bowl Arkansas Stopping 2nd half effort. Ken Ekanem and Nigel Williams dominated and harassed, sacked and tackled their way to some serious looks from the next level. It is fitting that the squad that turned the Belk Bowl around would be that which brought us to the dance over the years. Virginia Tech has been known for defense; and as luck and experience would have it the #LPD remembered its place in Hokie history on the first few plays from scrimmage in the 2nd half of the Belk Bowl. It followed up by continuing with a total domination of the Razorbacks causing four turnovers that all resulted in short field Hokie touchdowns.
We offer a fond farewell to the other Seniors some who played and some who found roles of other natures, but all who made the transition and shared in a completely unexpected season. Jonathan McLaughlin and Augie Conte had their struggles this season but they also had their triumphs. All offensive linemen have challenges and almost no one sees them when things go right. It often seems that Offensive Linemen only get noticed when the Quarterback is chased out of the pocket or the running back’s effort stops two yards short of the line of scrimmage. Both of these young men buckled up and brought every ounce of what they had, game after game. That sort of effort must be mentioned for the meritorious service that it was. Der'Woun Greene played in ten games this season, mostly on special teams as a kick returner, but he did play some defense. Then there was Brenden Motley. He could have walked off to do other things after the starting job went to Jerod Evans. He was, after all, a redshirt Senior and had completed his bachelor’s level schooling. Instead, Motley chose to stay on with Coach Fuente to perform the much needed role of a capable experienced backup quarterback. Brenden was just that sort of player, always working for the team. As his three touchdowns and competent operation of the Fuente offense will attest, when he got the chance to play, Brenden Motley was a much needed player in the grander scheme of things. It will always make me wonder how well he would have done if he had been in Fuente’s system from the beginning.
Justin Fuente lauded his seniors, especially as the season closed and the unexpected ACC Coastal Championship trophy was awarded. Ok, that game I was on the field and the energy and excitement level over the Coastal did not match the retention of the Commonwealth Cup, but we’ll just have to forgive everyone involved. That game and day were very special.
So, what’s the point of all of this besides talking about Seniors leaving, and tidbits of memory for the season wrap? Football is a process, and a transition as major as a coaching change in the midst of a recruiting dry-up could have left us with a disaster on our hands for a few seasons. There were more than a few analysts who foresaw a less than .500 season, with struggles on both sides of the ball. There was the constant nag of the potential for friction between the old regime backers, and the new blood flowing into the system. The 10-4 2016 season is its own little football miracle. We’d have been happy with 7-5, ecstatic with 8-4, and were elated with 9-3. The Hokies didn’t end it there, though. In that 9-3 was that Coastal Division Championship, and an ACC game with Clemson that the Tigers are still sweating bullets over. Then there was that amazing 24 point Arkansas lead that evaporated in the 2nd half of a game that many folks had given up on in the 1st half. Justin Fuente, Bud Foster and the Hokie Football Team just served the FBS notice. If you are going to play the Hokies you are going to have to play us from the opening kickoff until the last second of the last minute of the game.
There were certainly stumbles, and they will be the topic of future article. There were triumphs – another article. However, right now we need to pay tribute to and thank Coach Fuente, the Seniors, and the entire remainder of the team for bringing home a double digit winning season and Belk Bowl Miracle. But, good old reality will come, like ground rush, as National Signing Day and Spring Practice refocus our attention on the 2017 Season.
It was a great 2016, but it can be better.