The Final Five for 2019
Well, that is that, and it was all then which seems to be the world’s most weird tautology but in the case of the football season, for us, it’s completely true. The season was how it unfolded and ended. It is all in the past, except for an exhibition bowl. Thursday is the usual time for a five things article, this is Friday (big article lots to think about), and I suspect that this one might be controversial in some corners of our fan base.
We have always asserted that the Virginia Tech Football program is in a transition period from the Beamer Era to the Fuente Era. There are three stark realities that must be understood before proceeding to the Five things, though. They relate to the transition, and the persistent ‘belief’ that runs as an undercurrent in the situation.
- The Hokie football program at the passing of Weaver and retirement of Frank Beamer was not in any level of good health. (Neither was the basketball program, both men’s and women’s, but that’s another article.) Recruiting had fallen off precipitously, the depth chart was riddled with holes, and the final four seasons had resulted in a 1 game over .500 record that was indicative of a dragged out program denouement.
- Hokie Nation has higher expectations than it has wallet. We want national championships; but on the cheap. The athletic department revenues for the school are relatively paltry compared to the usual array of “top tier schools”. We can’t easily fill the coffers of the booster club with a minimal bleg. It takes major campaigns and months to achieve even modest funding goals. All of that adds up to a chronically underfunded football program that also must subsidize the raft of non-revenue sports that Title IX requires to provide “balance”. Virginia Tech has an excellent Ice Hockey program, but it’s a club (we have no local ice). We don’t field a men’s Lacrosse or rugby team. We haven’t managed to build and maintain a major sized field house to replace the dear, but ancient and tiny Cassell. We’ve gotten a few big donations to build things... the basketball center and the Beamer Barn, but major improvement to Lane Stadium are still not happening, and we certainly don’t fill it, either. Again, we repeat, big time championship programs require big time money. We ain’t it, kid.
- With modestly compensated coaching combined with modest levels of recruiting response, we field a football team that will be permanently “stuck” at seasons averaging eight to nine wins and three to four losses. Some years we might have the intersection of talent and momentum to bubble up to the 1 or 2 loss level, but those will be occasional events. Competing with 4 and 5 star programs with 2 and 3 star recruits with the results that we get is frankly a miracle. The problem is that winning those recruiting battles for the 4 and 5 star talent is not about Jumping to “Sandman”, Firing the Skipper for scores, or even getting relatively tiny Lane Stadium full enough to create a few procedure penalties. That level of player is looking to go to a program that is going to get him a high level of NFL attention. Tech just hasn’t developed a broad enough appeal to the critical positions (Linemen, Running Backs, and Quarterbacks) to build a complete enough team to push past the 70-80% win ratio.
Those three realites set up some of the basis for the final Five Things article of the football season. The realities listed are now being amplified buy the extension of the transition for the defense. We are going with the supposition that Fuente’s former DC Barry Odom will be at the helm of the #LPD before too long (if not already announced today or this weekend). Odom might be the one DC out there who would fully embrace the Lunch Pail (though he might go for a new model) concept. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the transition if he did. So that’s the spirit of the Five Things. What does Fuente have to do to complete the transition and solidify this team to be a solid contender for the Coastal every year, compete for the ACC Championship, and not worry about things that may never happen (consistent top 10 status and Fakeoff contention)?
Defensive Reset Minimizing the Disruption
The first major issue that Tech will have to tackle is the obvious transition in defensive coaching. Some of the things involved in the change have more to do with program sustainment than field coaching. The DC is the big hammer for recruiting. Bud Foster has not been known as a volume recruiter, let’s just put it at that. His last four seasons have been better than his prior 10, but Bud was never a road, camp, living room glad hand sort of guy. The new DC is probably going to have his own recruiting tree, familiar territories, and program contacts. Those will have to be integrated with the existing Tech openings. That sort of buttering, smoothing, and blending make sketch art look simple by comparison. Firming up commitments for the rapidly approaching Early Signing Day (Dec 13th) seems to be a bit out of the focus, but relevant a DC that doesn’t meet the expectations of the recruit might get a reject and wait for National Signing Day, later in the Spring. There are arguments to be made, pro and con, about the Tech Athletic Department foot dragging on this decision. Either way, it is going to have an effect on any defensive players who have committed who might go through a change of heart with the news. In this situation pulling the band-aid off fast will probably be better. The quick decision will give the program time between ESD and NSD to reassure committed players and maybe pick up a few who are thinking of moving on from stale commitments of their own.
Adapting to the New Defense that Will be Coming
Secondly, while we are on the defensive side of the situation, there will need to be a skills and structure discussion. Bud Foster’s defense was “unusual” in that it used different terminology and disciplines. The Bear Front (4-2-5) defense was revolutionary in some ways. It moved the Will Linebacker out to the boundary and edged it more toward a Strong Safety instead of a traditional outside coverage linebacker. That means 100% of the linebackers and safeties have been trained, indoctrinated, and practiced in the techniques necessary to operate that defensive configuration. In addition, the Defensive staff will be short a Linebacker coach since Foster was both the DC and coached the Linebackers (face it position - inside or outside is irrelevant, here... he was the coach of the mid-field... period). That means the staff will either have to pick up a coach who could take over for the dual role, or hire two coaches. (Odom was a college linebacker of good skill in the SEC... that might be a serious check mark in his favor.) We know that if it’s him, we are likely to see a migration to a 3-4-4 (maybe even that 3-3-5 he’s been toying with) from the 4-2-5. The challenge will be how fast will those changes be implemented, and how good will the results be.
Fix the Offense
Third, it was very obvious at the end of the season that the offense was still struggling. It was explosive, yes, but frustratingly inconsistent. That lack of consistency seemed to stem from a puzzling lack of strategic planning along with tactical vision, and execution. The UVA game was a microcosm of the problems. The offense was patterned, overly conservative, and extremely limited in the first half. That was often punctuated by totally inappropriate stabs at explosive low percentage plays. The second half netted some marginal innovation with excellent results. A few intermediate pattern concepts and some outside runs by both the QB and other runners loosened up the defense and exposed the Wahoo mid-field defense as very vulnerable. However, the timidity error crept back into the play calling pattern. Tech abandoned the riskier strategy that was working for the same old limited A-gap running plays, jet sweeps, and desperation passes too deep to accomplish the goal of getting first downs. This season’s offense was better once Hendon Hooker was moved into the starting role, not because Hooker was a better talent (he is but that’s not the point) but because his playing style and capabilities matched the Offensive Coordinator’s game plans. That’s not a healthy way to run an offense.
Game planning isn’t a fixed template where players are hammered into roles. It’s a two way street where the Coordinator must adapt to his players strengths and capabilities as much as they have to adapt to his system. Offense is about being on the Attack. Too many times the Virginia Tech Hokie Offense depended on trench warfare that it was ill equipped to conduct; and ignored the defensive weaknesses that offered sustained maneuver opportunities. There was a stunning lack of boldness in certain situations that resulted in disadvantageous outcomes. Translation: the Hokie play calling went timid and we got snuffed when we had the formula to drive and score. The Offense absolutely must get better and that means a different approach. The current one isn’t working.
Getting Control of the Extra Cirricular Information Flow
Fourth, there needs to be a better level of control exerted over player social media behavior and function. During the last three seasons there has been a steady impulse of undercurrents that drive speculation, rumor, and misinformation, along with the occasional accidental revelation. The 2019 season was very poisoned by the social media interactions of the players, fans, and extended families. While censorship is not necessarily a good thing, there needs to be some modicum of monitoring and control placed on these interactions. The problems can boil out of control rapidly, and the program is behind the power curve in dealing with the information. The AD’s office needs to “up its game” on managing, responding to, and limiting damaging social media events. While no one should pretend to have all of the answers, there seems to be a serious lag in the response levels. Official social media interactions tend to be the banal, mundane, and laudatory pronouncements that disappear into the background rather quickly. Of course the sensational remains at the top of the stacks.. repeated ad nauseum. Tech really needs to get a handle on the 21s century information flow. (Prime example: HokieSports posting press conferences with 10-20 minute cards backed by annoying music to the main site. If it’s raw, you can at least chop the dead leader. If it’s a day old, it should be reposted as polished finished product from end to end.)
Dealing with the Exhibition Situation
Fifth, the bowl game is going to be a tough one and that doesn’t refer to the potential opponent. There doesn’t seem to be a real rhyme or reason for the projections but bowls and opponents have been shaken about like dice in a Yahtzee game. Every time the dice are tossed the number combination comes up different. We are getting anywhere from Alabama to Mississippi State as an opponent. People trying to figure out the byzantine book of odd ball rules governing bowl selections are always missing something, and nothing makes much sense. No wonder the coaches just take a break let the players get their finals done, and go off on recruiting trips. We won’t know until the invitations go out what we are up against. All of this for an exhibition game that means nearly nothing in the grander scheme of things. At least the personnel atmospherics are much better this season, and the bowl invitation will be accepted with joy instead of bitterness.
Wrapping It All Up
There was an unfortunate turn of events called the 2018 season. The 2019 season rolled right into the same sort of issues until the shock of the Duke game forced some serious re-evaluation. Since that loss, the two losses were a grand total of 4 real points and 6 if you count the final try at the close of the UVA game. The improvement in the team on the field was immediately noticiable. There looked to be some changes being made on the sidelines, but that process needs to continue to complete this transition. 2020 started on the 1st of October for Virginia Tech. Addressing the some of the critical issues will be the most important goal of the long break between now and the bowl game. A win would really affirm that the staff is on the right path before the long offseason.