This is the second part of the season wrap series for the first part – Painful
I had originally sub titled this “Hope”; but I got to thinking about it (probably too hard, I know) and that seemed like there was some sort of rock bottom surrounded by no organization and no plan to advance. So, I chose “Promise”, because the Virginia Tech Football Program as it is being run by Whit Babcock and Justin Fuente looks very much like it has a plan and a method to address the reconstruction of a program that had fundamentally ground to a halt by 2012.
What we are seeing is the outside of a complete rebuilding of nearly everything in the program. Yes, it’s cloaked in the Maroon and Orange, Sandman, Lane, dolomite, and the mountains of Southwest Virginia, but like a beautiful old Victorian valley house of red brick and white trim, the exterior is actually the easy part. Inside the old girl needs a complete gutting and rebuild to get her up to code.
So, where are we in this process? Justin Fuente bought the house and it’s been pretty much gutted. The outside was sound, but the structure inside was in need of serious attention. We have just finished year three of what is usually a five year process (sometimes shorter, sometimes longer but usually five years). Why is it five years? Think of it. When a program gets a re-start 100% of the players on the roster are left over from the prior six year recruiting cycle. Some of the players are standouts, but most reflect the final few years of recruiting and player development. A new coach is going to have to work to supplement those roster spots and firm up what can be. Fuente had an unusual transition in that the players inherited from the Beamer program had a large number of experienced upperclassmen who bought into the new program. This is probably due to the orderly and up beat transition from the Beamer to the Fuente eras, but it is also attributed to the fact that between 2012 and 2015 the program had already been struggling. Those players left were highly motivated, sorted out, and prepared to go to work on Fuente’s terms. They were mature and capable if not as talented as their peers.
The first season, we got away with and the second season’s slight draw down in results reflected the final out processing of the legacy upperclassmen. So, here we are at the theoretical end of the bottom of the trough. As we look around let’s see what promising things are left for the program to build upon for the next two critical years.
Promise #1: Recruiting re-invigorated and new pipelines being opened
The first reality of college football is recruiting to meet current needs. The second is recruiting to meet tomorrow’s needs. The third reality is recruiting to meet needs four or more years in the future. The first season, 2015, Justin Fuente’s recruiting was more of a rescue mission. He was dependent on the 6 year pipeline of prospects and promises dealt out by the Beamer recruiting regime. Remember, it’s a personal thing for many players, and that means the loss of a coach from a program can also mean the loss of one or more critical players. Justin Fuente and staff spend all of 2015 trying to keep the existing commitments in place, and supplement what was not filled with who could be plugged in, in a hurry. We are currently operating with those players to a large extent, now. Damon Hazelton and Ryan Willis are the results of the Jerod Evans success of grabbing up experienced JUCO and Four-year program personnel. Remember both Willis and Hazelton had to ride the pine last season. They are 2015-2016 transfer replacement successes. Fuente also leaned on some of his Memphis recruiting contacts to do further out of area supplementing. The 2018 Fall roster ended up with 58 Virginia players out of a total of 111 listed players. Most of the out of state players are from North Carolina, but we have them from all over including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Kansas. There was a time in the not too distant past when that ratio was not 1:1. We’ll see how the roster sets up for the Spring and then Fall 2019, but Fuente’s not a “Virginia 1st” sort of recruiter at this time. He’s mining lots of territory not usually touched by Virginia Tech recruiting. We need to reach out to more non-traditional areas and programs as our instate competition for players ramps up, and the looming black holes of Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State, and Virginia put serious pressure on the traditional Virginia recruiting areas of NOVA, Tidewater, and Southside.
The wider our appeal the better off we are in the PR wars, exposure to the pro scouts, and viability of the long term goals of the program. The Virginia world of High School Football is good, but not a panacea. We need to have broader appeal to get more of the best players. Suffice it to say that steady progress has been made over two full years of recruiting. There are renewed/refreshed and new relationships being established with coaches and high school programs. That is how a program, without the NFL Draft/Championship Trophy gravity well to feed it, prospers.
Promise #2: Solid core of new upperclassmen to build on
If you didn’t notice, there were very few seniors running out to say good-bye to Lane. There were a couple of academic seniors; of notable impact among them is Coleman Fox are graduating and moving on. That’s fine; they have a remaining year of eligibility and might decide to try for one more season somewhere else. As graduates they can play immediately. We are losing Vinny Mihota and Ricky Walker from the defensive line. Kyle Chung and Braxton Pfaff all of them are graduates so they will be on to whatever fortunes knock on their doors. They are us, now, and will always be special to us.
That is the sum total of the real graduation losses for 2018. Defensive Back Devante Smith has decided to head for other pastures of late; he was a redshirted freshman this season and didn’t get any playing time. But so far, that’s the sum total of the departures from the defense at the end of 2018. There may be some further moves over the next few months. We will see what happens, but basically the roster that the Hokies ended 2018 with is going to be their Spring roster for 2019. That’s actually a very good thing. There will be a more even distribution of starting seniors, juniors and underclassmen in the roster mix next season. If this all hangs together, it means that from now on, the even talent churn will be maintained. That’s the first key to the magic of running a winning college program. Every year is different. You lose and gain players every season. The idea is not to lose nine starters on Defense in one year. That’s the sort of blow that very few programs can sustain.
The tires start gripping from this point on.
Promise #3: The quarterback situation resolves and improves
Virginia Tech has something that it hasn’t had in quite a while going on. We have two experienced quarterbacks vying for the starting job in the Fall of 2018, and a potential superstar for the 2020-2023 seasons in the wings. Both Josh Jackson and Ryan Willis have serious game reps, now. What’s more is that because they have such radically different skill sets, the coaching staff understands the sorts of play concepts that each needs in order to succeed. Right now, Quincy Patterson is still very much a Redshirt. He never reached the 4 game limit, so he has four total years of eligibility left. That means next season he carries a clip board and plays the support role as the #3 backup on the field. I realize that there will be a hoard of people clamoring for him to play in 2019. He may very well get some reps in low pressure situations. Unless something drastic happens to either Jackson or Willis, there is little probability of Patterson playing in more significant situations than garbage time. Of course that leaves Hendon Hooker out somewhere, and how that resolves itself I am not completely sure. (If it were me, I’d have moved him to Defensive Back at the beginning of the season.)
Right now, though, the tough decisions for Fuente are the embarrassments of which competent player to choose. It’s hard, but lots of us would like to have that sort of difficult decision. I still give Willis the edge for 2019 just because of the nature of Jackson’s injury and the known, lengthy rehab for it. How this shakes out will be the story of the offseason, though.
Promise #4: Normality
There has to be a real measure of relief in the coaching offices and team rooms. The Virginia Tech Hokie Football program seems to have arrived at some sort of “normality” for a change. No one is going to tell you that the last three seasons with the live ghost of Frank Beamer hovering off to the side was insignificant. It had to have an automatic second guessing effect. We saw it in many of the fan comments and observations. The Beamer Era finally rolled away like the early morning New River Valley fog. This is now Justin Fuente’s program. Frank’s a bronze statue, now. He’s a College Football Hall of Fame coach who is just one other beloved Hokie VIP, like Bruce Smith or D Hall. This is Justin Fuente’s team, his program, and his imprint is finally being felt.
So, we go to a bowl, which even if it is a booger, it’s a really nice booger. It’s in a famous stadium and a hallowed place where we have been invited and won before. We’ll have a normal recruiting run. We’ll have a normal Early Signing Day, a regular National Signing Day, and a completely normal Spring Practice and Game. Wow, is that a great thing, or what? It’s the return of the normal rhythm and pace of a healthy growing college football program. The 2019 season looks to be promising, and that’s a good thing.