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The Gobbler Country Football Playbook: Strategic Choices, Personnel

Time to take a look at the thorny strategic issue of choosing player personnel. What are the general issues, and how do the Hokies fit into the grander scheme of things.

Josh Jackson warms up for the Tribe
John Schneider - SB Nation

The first part of answering a strategy is picking which sort of offense you are best suited for running. The second part is answering the “suited” issue. What sort of players can you, as a program, expect to get to play for you? That’s the controversial part of this. When we, as fans, demand that our teams win everything every time, at all costs, are we willing to pay those costs?

The Dark Side of Choosing Personnel

The costs are often monetary and sometimes operate in the shade. (It’s no mystery and ignoring the fact that “arrangements” are often made by top programs is an unfortunate part of all of this.) I am going to specifically reference SB Nation pieces on the bagman phenomenon. Watch SB Nation’s What is a Bagman:

What is a bagman?

The shadowy economy of college football couldn't exist without bagmen. But what's a bagman anyway? Watch the full series of Foul Play:

Posted by SB Nation on Sunday, June 3, 2018

Watch SB Nation’s ‘Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi’ for a picture of where this sort of stuff can lead. The “docuseries is the culmination of five years of reporting, and you can watch the whole thing free online”. Use the link below. The embed wasn’t cooperating.

If you are feeling like you needs something for the Kindle, or a paperback to kill an afternoon, check out Josh Luch’s Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football for a serious work exposing some of the practices going on in high powered college football.

Suffice it to say, a major (Silent Fifth) strategic choice that many teams have taken is that they don’t deal with that sort of operation. The unfortunate upshot of the strategic choice to not conduct your program in such a way is to foreclose the ability to get high powered recruits in the door. That means coaching staffs not so indulging must compete against those who do. It really makes ‘straight’ recruiting difficult. Besides the outside of the lines things happening, recruiting is already an arduous task.

Deal with the Real Reasons for Players to be in Your Program

It realities of college football, and why young men play college football at various levels shall remain the cognitive dissonance of the scholarship scene. In talking with players and families over the years there are three basic motivations for playing college football:

  1. Getting to the NFL
  2. Getting some emotional satisfaction at the collegiate level.
  3. Earning a degree without incurring major debt, or when the chance would never come otherwise.

Those reasons are pretty much in that order, depending on the level of reality brewing in the recruits’ minds. How many athletically talented kids have multiple offers for big name schools, and play cat and mouse for “closets” full of college kitsch. College football prospects are essentially “free-agents” and the inducements to come to your program are often tied directly to reason # 1, from the list. The juniors and seniors being recruited look, first and foremost, for programs that have the best chance of getting them to the next level, as fast as possible. The other two reasons are inversely proportional to the number of rating stars behind the players’ names. So a 2-star is going to get few offers, and will take what he can get because he’s more interested in 2 or 3 from the list. He knows 1 isn’t going to happen, short of some miracle.

When big teams like Alabama and Oklahoma get a collective 22 athletes drafted from one year, it’s not surprising that they have high school and transfer athletes with lots of talent lining up to play for their programs. That goes for all of the big names football programs; Penn State, Stanford, Notre Dame, LSU, Auburn... but the fact remains that the preferred list of programs for big talent football players is often quite a long one, ahead of your program. So, you either catch a bit of lightning in a bottle, like landing a Michael Vick or Tyrod Taylor, or you try to ‘make do’ with the sort of talent that will come to your program and coach them up. That’s been an interesting and very problematic churn for the Hokies. Our recruiting has been mundane, and our success at developing the higher ranked talent hasn’t been so good. We aren’t alone.

The Battle of the Stars and Living with Recruiting Ceilings

Let’s take the preceding reality and mix it with the choice of what sort of offense you decide to run. We’ll use the stars system to illustrate. We’ll start off with five stars and work down as reality cuts off the glitter.

Take one star off your program ceiling for any and all of the following:

  • If you decide that you aren’t going to “push the rules envelope” on recruiting and discourage the practice by the usual suspects.
  • If you aren’t a big NFL draft generator.
  • If you don’t routinely challenge for the AP/Coaches Top 10.

Now you are at a Four Star limit. Take the next peg out if more than one of the following describe your program:

  • Your school is not well known as a football school.
  • Your program is struggling or just old and tired.
  • Your facilities are below spec or functionally average.
  • Your school and program are at odds with each other.
  • Your location is without “social appeal”.
  • Your coaching and training are mediocre.

Let’s state a point of reality, here, to keep this down to a long form article, and not a book. If you drop below a four star recruiting ceiling, the chances of developing any sort of dominating gridiron presence in NCAA FBS Division 1 is largely a matter of luck.

Now there are exceptions, and sometimes those exceptions present golden opportunities. The Hokies have had several 4-Star plus prospects that have made a serious difference on the football field. Of those, Michael Vick, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams, David Wilson, Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds; only Tyrod stayed for his entire eligibility. The remainder bolted for the NFL as soon as they were done. In the Edmunds brothers’ cases; they did receive their degrees so hanging an extra 1 and 2 seasons would have been academically meaningless. But all of that proves the point of the star factor ceiling. Even when a program with a 3.5/4 star ceiling manages to attract a higher rated player the dedication to the entirety of their eligibility is low. Hence the assertion that the stars necessary to win big games are professional prospects and the recruiting process becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

What’s It Mean for Finding Talent for the 2019+ Hokies?

How does this fit in with the Fuente era Hokies? We had a bunch of folks drafted in 2018 (from the 2016 and 2017 teams). Well we had exactly Zero drafted in the 2019 draft, and many of the drafted players from the 2016/2017 teams were early outs. This year’s recruiting ceiling is pretty low and the negative impulse to the feedback loop will grow if the team struggles, again.

I laid out all of that to tell you this. All of that recruiting, with or without the cheating, takes huge amounts of money. It takes money to travel to places to talk to families. It takes money to run camps, scout players, and host visits. It takes cold hard cash to fund scholarships, pay for coaching, equipment, facilities, support staff, Public Relations and a myriad of other details. The bigger the cash flow the better the program looks to the scouts and pundits. The better the facilities are more attractive to the good coaches, and players. It’s brutally simple arithmetic. It doesn’t take any sort of advanced degree to figure it out.

Finding the personnel to fit your strategic game plan is mostly dependent on how much money you have to spend on the job. Which gives us a fairly arrived at conclusion. The Virginia Tech Athletic Department was recently not listed in the 24/7 College Sports Top 25 Money-Makers by Gross Revenue list. 24/7 Sprots from June 2018. USAToday lists NCAA finances (last year reported 2016-2017) USA Today showed Virginia Tech was listed at #44 and lost money for that season.

We are Still “Just Making Do”

Recruiting players to come to the program is going to be difficult. We aren’t going to attract too many of those big 4 and 5 star recruits; and we aren’t going to attract a great deal of the NFL draft interest to compensate for the lack of big money in the mix. This all means making do with what we can get. It’s what Frank Beamer was so good at. He managed to cobble together some very special teams over his tenure. He also managed to sort of cajole Hokie Nation into a sort of “hey, we do it with 3-stars” sort of attitude.

Justin Fuente was handed a creaking underfunded program with a rapidly evaporating recruiting pool, where the recruiting effort to success rate was becoming a serious problem. Last season was a strategic personnel disaster. The transition seemed smooth enough when we won some impressive games in 2016, and hung on in 2017. Pressure and loss is what it is. There wasn’t enough grease for the wheels and the squeaky ones finally spun off over the course of 2018.

Fuente has re-established his quarterback pipeline, and has few running back prospects to help. He’s also smoothed out the transition issue in the wide receiver corps. The offense largely stabilized last season by the UVA game, and throughout the season was reasonably consistent even with the injury induced change at quarterback. (We aren’t talking about Defense until later in the series, but there aren’t too many people arguing against the fact that the defense’s personnel collapse in 2018 was the reason for most of our losses.)

The conundrum is how the balance works out between the recruiting to keep the offense churning through the 4-year NCAA eligibility rules, and getting the very young and bloodied defense with a renewed recruiting pipeline of its own.

We’ll talk more about personnel specifics when we get to the tactics of game planning and execution. Next up we’ll look at building the program. We hinted a bit at it with personnel, but there are more than players involved in a successful football program.