There are no excuses being accepted in this series. We are going to do our level best to pull some solid observations from the season, and look at the situation facing the Virginia Tech Hokies. The questions are all begged by the uneven and often brutal performances of the past 7 games (8 if you count the ECU cancellation).
So we start off with the first thing that comes to mind from the systemic, coaching perception.
Is there something up with Fuente, or is it just the worst possible scenario given the off season we had and a muddy quarterback situation?
No one is going to kid anyone. Justin Fuente has had an absolutely awful year. He ended 2017 with a disappointing fade and bowl game loss. He lost a total of 10 players to graduation and early outs. Some of those early outs were disciplinary problems. Mook Reynolds was arrested on drug charges. Adonis Alexander loses eligibility due to grades. We don’t know all of the particulars, but the mess not only knocked key players out of the defensive roster but it absolutely hammered morale. The situation with Galen Scott was both professional and personal. We aren’t going to belabor the details but most normal people would be rocked back on their heels to have to fire a best friend. This was a double shock since the coaching loss was not just Fuente’s personally. Scott had built a solid relationship with the players and nothing was going to quickly be inserted to make that loss better.
Being the head coach at Memphis was tough. Being the head coach of a Power 5 team in a conference dominated by peer programs (and then dominated further by energy sapping Clemson) is a whole lot to adjust to. He’s also had to take the weird side shows regarding Frank Beamer, with all of the bells and whistles to go with those distractions. Head Coaches generally have egos, and even if they put them in boxes they do get dinged up. I just get the feeling that Fuente doesn’t fully trust that he has complete control over the program, both managerially and emotionally.
The added hits were the premature, ill advised (and behind the scenes acrimonious) departure of Jerod Evans for an NFL draft that never called, was the vague disappointment with his replacement, Josh Jackson. Jackson had the demeanor that Fuente seems to like but he is too small, slow (of foot and release). JJ looked good avoiding big mistakes, but his “risk” aversion also became a serious hinderance as the season wore on. Both coach and quarterback fed on each other’s risk aversion. That situation just solidified even more over the Spring and Summer. The end result was what looked like a relative ignorance of his backup quarterbacks’ capabilities. It also looks like there is just no trust in the offense. But the offense isn’t the biggest problem that Justin Fuente is facing. His defense is just not good. In fact, it’s bordering on flat awful. That’s a whole lot to take when it was so amazing last season.
Fuente has way too much to fix this season for any realistic expectations of winning much of anything.
This is finally the big bad season from hell that we all figured was coming eventually. Fuente started his run as head whistle with a lot of senior and junior talent and that dissipated this past year as graduation and attrition hit. Now it’s almost all freshmen and sophomores that he has to coach up after them having not played this entire time. I don’t think people really want to admit it because they’re always expecting this team to perform, but instant improvement over the season doesn’t happen. No matter how much jawing the coaches do, or how much tape people watch? There’s no time for the technique and refinement to set in. This team isn’t going to have a legitimate chance to get much better over the course of the year itself; it has to wait for next year to really show...
That being said? Fuente sure has had a few head-scratching maneuvers and this team has definitely confused with its lack of consistency, continuous playcalling miscues, and seeming lack of intensity and preparation. There’s a lot of quit in the coaching decisions- any time this team gets down, there’s ZERO urgency, especially in the Georgia Tech game- why punt? Why not just go for it every time? Your defense is getting nothing going in terms of disruption and the offense operated like it was business as usual- and after a burst of points it went completely quiet.
This isn’t just Fuente’s problem, either. This past game was the third straight year where Bud Foster had zero idea how to stop the option- this time it was just QB power student body left and the defense almost never left base defense and didn’t attack downfield at all- the linebackers just sat back and caught what the defensive line let run all over them. There was almost nothing that anyone did that worked, and it seemed like there wasn’t much that COULD be done even schematically to help. I felt from the box like Foster left his guys out to dry on a vine and didn’t do much at all to aid them- but what can be done when guys simply miss every tackle imaginable? I think the biggest overall problem was that the defensive front was getting pushed around- but that’s what happens when you’ve got a load of sub-300 pound guys on the line against someone that’s just going to smack you in the mouth with a fist every play.
My personal point of view is that the biggest error of all in that game was in what the entirety of the team is right now. Some of that falls on former recruiting classes and strategies under the prior regime (many low-quality and small-sized classes that you had a bunch of big time hits, but not enough solid singles that stuck around and made senior contributions), some of that falls on recruiting under this regime (Defensive tackle in particular has stunk, but it’s not like we’ve had many years under Wiles before where we didn’t have at least one question mark there). So you’re dealing with inexperienced kids with a coaching staff that doesn’t seem to be equipped or motivated to get the most out of them now- or this is what they CAN get out of what they recruited, which means that there is definitely a long way to go and they’ve had a really bad time communicating that or much of anything. Part of Fuente’s problem right now is that he really needed to be forthcoming in front of the fans- hey, guys, this team is YOUNG AS ALL GET OUT AND WHAT WE GET THIS YEAR IS WHAT WE GET. But that would require going beyond trite coachspeak palaver.
Now, part of this is on the fans and outsized expectations. I didn’t have as high expectations personally this year because I’ve watched recruiting for years. I know how young this team is. I’ve played football for four years and know that improvement week to week, for the most part, is marginal and that improvement really only comes in the offseason. Of course Fuente is going to say at some point being young isn’t going to be an excuse. But being realistic it’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation.
Is Fuente blameless? No. Is he working with a short deck? Yes. Are there things that the coaching staff did wrong? Oh heck yes. Is there some of it that is still down to individual players making plays and keeping their wits about them? Definitely. All of these things can be true. There’s no one silver bullet. No one figure to place the blame on. And that’s what makes it so frustrating.
The reality us that Justin Fuente is dealing with some serious transition issues that were expected. Unfortunately ‘stuff’ happens, and Coach Fuente ended up with more stuff flying from more directions than he could have possibly anticipated.
The reality is that he is dealing with a team that is young and inexperienced. That is not, as Joshua points out, an excuse. It is stark reality. We do not have a 4 to 5 star recruiting program or pipeline. Any chance for that evaporated in the 2010 to 2016 drop off. Rebuilding new recruiting relationships with coaches and schools takes time and effort. It also takes momentum and success. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Justin Fuente looks like he will eventually get the organization in better shape; but it is going to take as long as it usually takes s good coach to fix an ailing program and that has usually been a four or five season process. We noted in the beginning of the season that this was a pure transitional season that might not be what the fans would really like to see. Patience and realistic expectations are required.