If we understand that the head coach is part of the long term solution; then what’s making this hooptie ride burn oil, and knock? We are seeing fingers pointed at the talent, the day to day coaching decisions, and the overall scheme being employed. These are really complex issues but should not be ignored because it’s too difficult.
A more complex question: are the issues concerning this team more talent related, coaching related, or scheme related? Subtext: Obviously it’s a mixture of all three, but one of these issues bears the brunt of the blame.
I see this from the angle of years in the high tech business. Providing a service or a product takes some serious long term planning and organization. It takes capital (meaning active investment) and clarity in leadership. It also can take a good deal of patience from the investors. Well, the product that is being put on the field is not pleasing an increasing number of the ‘investors’. As I have seen in some comments there have been notices that Hokie Nation isn’t much of an investor in the football program. The reality is that we are somewhere around 44th for annual team revenues. If you look at the list, you’ll be surprised to see us rated as high as we are in on field performance, in relation to that revenue figure. The richest teams tend to put up the winningest programs. There is a dark side to that equation, but for now, let’s just talk about putting talent on the field.
Look we just don’t have what it takes to win the big games in raw physical talent. It doesn’t help the improvement possibilities when this program is famous for taking two and three star recruits and turning them into capable football players. That reality seems to have carried over from the Beamer Era to the Fuente Era. We are now seeing an improved flow of better talent from this new staff, but the ‘barsip’ trickle of 4 and 5 star players that we have seen in the last generation is not the material of National Championships. It just isn’t. It’s enough to sustain us bumping into and out of the top 25 between the 10 and 25 marks, but short of some sort of complete fluke it’s going to take more than a few years of slightly improved recruiting to turn the talent issue around.
The talent “thing” leads to the day to day coaching issue. We are all completely flummoxed at the inconsistent play calling coming from the Offensive coaching staff. Remember Fuente doesn’t call his own plays. That duty goes to Brad Cornelsen his Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach. This season we have seen bursts of amazing play calling and excellent execution, followed inexplicably by leaden thinking and poor results on the field. Nothing says “I give up” more than tanking a 2 yard dive play into the line of scrimmage when you are two touchdowns back with nearly half the game remaining. That thought pattern just doesn’t compute. It certainly doesn’t win football games. In the last article Joshua mentioned a perplexing lack of urgency in the play calling during certain periods of the game. We hurry up... wig wag signals… fake clap hands... do all sorts of motion… and then run a halfhearted, poorly blocked halfback delay dive right into the 1 hole. What I see from that is a real deflationary effect on the offense, and a fundamental lack of understanding how to win with the method and rhythm that works and scores points. The Hokie staff just hasn’t learned the lesson that touchdowns have the same effect as burning clock running the ball, but with the added benefit of forcing the other guy to score, too.
The hash tag #STANDONITJUSTIN was invented to be a prod for a coaching staff that just doesn’t seem to trust its talent enough to mash the accelerator to the floor and continue to score points. For both the Georgia Tech and ODU games we had to score points faster than the opposition. In neither case did the coaching staff call the plays that enabled that to happen.
That also ends up with the issue of scheme. Someone noted back nearly 20 years ago, now, that you go to war with the army that you have. In this case, we are seeing a staff that wants to run A, when it does not have the talent for A, in the organization, at this time. The plans for A are in place. The personnel for A are being gathered, but not all are trained and ready to roll. So, executing A is a fool’s errand that will ultimately end in disaster. Of course that sort of disaster will also sour the A recruiting pipeline. So, this coaching staff needs to work with the Z that it has, and scheme to win as best as they can with Z. Right now I still see reticence to run Z operations even as A fails repeatedly.
There is the bitter pill challenge of a completely decimated (literally) defense. As inconsistent and inscrutable as the offensive scheme is, the defense has been flailing. The bend but don’t break thing works sometimes for some teams, and no times for other teams. With Georgia Tech, the staff needed to toss out their entire play book during the practice, and go back to 1970’s era option stopping schemes. They did absolutely everything wrong when defending against the option. What’s worse is all three times that we have struggled defensively. Well struggled means that we were sort of effective… that’s too generous, I suppose. The Hokie D has been downright pathetic for three critical contests. There are no excuses for that. The common thread seems to have been an opponent's switch in quarterbacks, which also meant a change in scheme from the opposition – no matter how slight. For GT, 11 could throw better than 8. Since the Jackets threw exactly one pathetically bad pass, you’d have thought the planning for 11 would have been dumped in the circular file. It wasn’t and we got what we got.
So there are issues across the team management perspective. Most can be fixed tomorrow morning. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed. The time for the “Meeting for Eternal Truth” is rapidly approaching. These last four games (and who knows maybe a 5th if they can sign a mid-major to make up for the lost game are going to be brutally critical to this team’s marginal measure of success. Will it make the scheme adjustment? I don’t know that answer. I should, see it, but I don’t know, and that bugs the snot out of me.
This is a question where the answer has multiple layers. And a big reason for the struggles of the Virginia Tech football program in 2018 is a combination of talent, coaching and scheme. It’s also due to youth and inexperience, too.
First, Justin Fuente is the head coach and must be held accountable for the issues with his football team. In Thursday’s loss to Georgia Tech, the offense was humming in the first half and couldn’t be stopped. Then, a fumble by Sean Savoy changed everything. Sure, Fuente wasn’t at fault for struggling to stop the option. However, why was the offense so lifeless and bad in the second half?
Literally, the offense couldn’t get anything going at all after the half. This is similar to the Notre Dame game. In the second half, the Fighting Irish appeared to make some defensive adjustments and the Hokies, and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelson, didn’t. And it is more than a play-calling issue. The offensive side of the ball is why Fuente was a hot commodity and got paid a lot of money. Yet, here we are in year three and we see the same issues pop up time and time again.
We can blame different quarterbacks and receivers all day long, however, at the end of the day it comes back to the coach. Is he playing the right players? Why does he appear to be giving up in the second half of games when the Hokies are behind? There was one particular fourth down on Thursday night where the Yellow Jackets had all the momentum and everyone in Blacksburg knew the defense couldn’t stop them. VT needed points. So Fuente decides to punt. What did he have to lose? Perhaps the Hokies could’ve gotten the first down and ended up scoring. That probably didn’t change the outcome of the game but it does show Fuente’s lack of faith in his own players.
Defensively, it is inexcusable that we cannot stop the option. Georgia Tech essentially ran the same two plays all night long and Bud Foster’s group couldn’t stop them. Sure, the Hokies aren’t loaded with top-tier talent up front outside of Ricky Walker. But you know what’s coming and you still can’t stop it. Georgia Tech did not complete one pass all night. Yet, the Jackets won by 21 points.
A lack of talent is a problem right now, however, if we go by recent recruiting rankings it appears recruiting is on the way up. Don’t believe that. Recruiting rankings can sometimes be deceiving. Sure, Tech has gotten some good talent recently, especially a guy like Dax Hollifield who will end up being a star for the Hokies. But other highly-ranked players like Dylan Rivers and Devon Hunter aren’t developing as quickly as some of us had hoped. Either your evaluations are wrong or the coaching staff isn’t getting the most out of these kids.
Is it scheme-related? Sure. Is Foster sometimes too stubborn thinking his scheme is the answer no matter the players on the field? Absolutely. The game continues to evolve and Foster doesn’t always evolve himself.
Offensively, Fuente appears rigid in his beliefs, too. The running game is a joke. Why can’t Fuente stick with one back for an entire game? Maybe that’s why we can’t get an elite back to come to Blacksburg. They see how bad this running game is and realize that doesn’t bode well for their future and go elsewhere. Can you blame them?
Look, no one should be fired here. I don’t understand the knee-jerk reactions of fans sometimes. There are issues here, clearly. However, it is important for people to realize this is not Alabama or Clemson. Our ceiling is not that high. But this team should be better than 6-6 or 7-5 on a given season. And fans and alumni do deserve much better than that.
It is time for Fuente to look in the mirror and assess how he does things. The rest of the staff, too. This is not going to get fixed overnight. This team could lose multiple games in their final four. Regardless of who is on the field, the coaching staff is getting paid lots of money to win games and perform at a higher level than what we are currently seeing from this product.
So, yes, we should be patient with Fuente, but we aren’t wrong in wanting and demanding more from him. And that is something he should understand.
It has been extremely frustrating this year to watch the constant, steady stream of mistakes the Hokies have made. But really, it feels like this low point in the Fuente era has been brewing since last season. Ever since the loss to Clemson last year, the Hokies have not passed the eye test. Think of their most impressive wins. A win over a West Virginia team that finished the year low in the polls in 2017? A result over an awful Florida State side that suffered their worst home loss ever yesterday? Tech doesn’t have a win over a team that has finished the year ranked under Fuente and that is a huge indictment on the coaching staff.
You can point to a lack of talent, sure. The departures for the NFL and the streets have not helped. But I’m more inclined to point to the scheme as the primary culprit for the lack of overall success. Inside zone read, outside zone, power, jet sweep, QB jet sweep zone read, out route against soft coverage, hard play-action with 12 yard square in to Hazelton, fade route down the sideline. There, I just listed 95 percent of the playbook. And when we do see a cool play call, like the Dalton Keene screen against Duke, it gets called just one more time over the next three weeks so defensive coordinators really don’t have to worry about it. The lack of variety puts the scoreboard operator to sleep, but also makes the offense itself boring to watch.
Moreover, there does not seem to be a rhyme or reason for each play call. The scheme is just an ordinary spread offense, without any identity or defining traits to make it hard to stop. It is predicated on quick throws which rely on receivers winning their one-on-one matchups which is a difficult task to ask for a young squad that has trouble playing a full 60 minutes of consistently good football. Downfield concepts are lacking, which allows the defense to play closer to the line of scrimmage and stifle a hapless running game. This is why after a 16-point second quarter against Notre Dame, the Hokies suddenly look completely inept at the start of second halves, or for that matter at the start of games. Defensive coordinators are not caught off guard by this Hokies’ offense, which allows them to attack instead of letting the offense set the tone.
Defensively, it’s really more of the same but I think the talent issues are more profound on that side of the ball. Bud Foster, as great as he is and has been, has left his corners on islands too many times since the departure of the Fullers and the defense has paid the price. Above average offenses (or in this year’s case, middling offenses), have found that out rather quickly. Take deep shots, because the cornerbacks can’t make plays on the ball in one-on-one coverage. The scheme has been predictable which makes the jobs of quarterbacks so much easier to pick apart a young, inexperienced secondary. It is the intersection of tiresome predictability and a shortage of talent. And don’t even get me started on mobile quarterbacks. Bud Foster has actually done a better job than the numbers give him credit for - it’s not his scheme’s fault the players fail to wrap up or look for the football in the air at critical points in the game.
The good news is plenty of coaches have developed their schemes over time. It happened at TCU and Memphis when Fuente made his coaching stops at those schools. But the most concerning aspect of this is that the scheme has barely evolved over the last two years. That absolutely needs to change over the next year or so.
If someone could lock Fuente and Cornelson in a room with 2018 film of the LA Rams’ offense, that would be outstanding.
This program isn't where anyone wants it to be right now. The Coastal water is so muddy with struggling mediocre programs that we are actually still in line to be beat up by Clemson. NC State dropped it's game to Cuse. Miami lost to Lefty and BC. And the Hoos won. So guess Hoo we are tied with for the title of cream of the crap??
Things are fixable, but this season is a salvage job. Pride is what we are playing for, now.