It’s the end of the 1st quarter of the season, and the realities are setting in. Many folks in Hokie Nation are getting restless and downright surly. That’s unfortunate for several reasons; time and money. Most complainers are just frustrated and angry so they call for scalps before realizing that any ground gained would be lost, and the program would be in an even deeper hole. As to the money aspect, there are contract stipulations built into the coach’s contract extension that provide him with a seriously huge payout if Virginia Tech waves tootle-loo…
The Coaching Situation is Unlikely to Change for Years to Come
You have to wonder just why Fuente’s agent negotiated those new very large buyouts. This year it’s something between 14 and 15 million, knowing that the original contract this year’s buyout was a steep but more achievable 5 to 6 million. There is a large whispering ogre who is relaying that in 2017, after pulling off a miracle season with 10 wins, Justin Fuente knew that the next few years were going to be a real challenge. Maybe he saw one of those “firebird” challenges coming up, and wanted to guarantee a full opportunity to turn the program flow around.
Fuente came to town with the Hokies flying mighty low. Even with the Ohio State win, and some other flashes of a return to underrated greatness the records for the last four regular seasons were; 2012 (6-6), 2013 (8-4) (2014 (6-6) and 2015 (6-6). That is one season above .500. (Author’s note: I never count bowl games unless they count for the championship – all else is exhibition.)
During that time, the recruiting trails began to evaporate. Remember the kids being scouted and recruited as high school freshmen and sophomores in 2012 would not even matriculate until 2017. So, when Justin Fuente was hired, he was handed a nearly dead recruiting tree.
So, what was the situation? Let’s refresh the memory.
- Fuente was hired near the end of his Memphis contract (payoff $500,000) near the end of the 2015 season. He brought some Memphis recruits with him, and one of them included Jerod Evans who he was trying to line up to replace Paxton Lynch. Other than his own mid-major level tree, he was handed Tech’s prospects and recruits. Fuente spent the entire period from the end of the 2015 season until National Signing Day attempting to rescue the Beamer “shrub”.
- The 1st season was a fluke. The new coaching blood and energy, along with the addition of Jerod Evans as a dual threat QB allowed Fuente to win more games than he probably expected. Frankly, some of that was the poor quality of the ACC Coastal that was beginning to show, and the fact that Bud Foster hung in there so his defense didn’t fall apart.
- The 2nd season we began to see some issues. The record wasn’t as convincing, and we still couldn’t beat Georgia Tech. For the 2nd season in a row under Fuente Tech’s biggest attribute was that they were winning games in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and the defense was holding off opponents in the 4th. There are quite a few folks who think that if Foster had gone, and the defense transferred out, en masse, Tech’s first two seasons of the Fuente era would have been normal struggles.
- The 3rd season was when the wheels fell off the cart. We know the story and we aren’t going to re-litigate the mess, but Tech “limped it in” with a wet, disappointing bowl bid and loss to Cincinnati. The season was .500… 6-6… again… but there was nothing satisfying about the rescue required just to make it to a bowl. On the recruiting front, things were looking up, but all of the talent was brand new, above average in rating, and we still didn’t have a first rate starter for QB and we had no cash cow running back. The team ended the season as the 4th youngest in NCAA football. That means something. Youth and inexperience is not an excuse. It’s a law of college football physics.
- This season we pick up where we left off in 2018, we are in a bit better shape on the defense. That’s a “bit” not a “ton”. The phrase “…the young and inexperienced 2018 offensive line has been replaced by one even younger and more inexperienced.” The issues showed up quite a few times in the Furman game. The Hokies started a bunch of true freshmen and two sophomores. It showed. (See this tweet from PeteB. It’s an eye opener.)
A visual of the youth on VT’s roster. Starters and backups who played vs. Furman; green are freshman, orange are sophomores. pic.twitter.com/47QgpkewxE— Pete B. (@petebvt) September 19, 2019
There are some bright spots in all of this.
- The O-Line is bigger, faster, and gaining confidence and experience.
- The running back situation is still in an odd place scheme wise, but Deshawn King looks like the real deal. He might be still on the smallish side, and that will limit his playing time, but he seems to be capable of making good use of his snaps.
- We are seeing some amazing talent at Wide/Slot Receiver; Hezekiah Grimsley, Tre Turner, and Tayvion Robinson have all been critical. There are actually six starting quality receivers who feed off of each other, and provide some explosiveness that this offense has lacked for several seasons.
- The defense is still a bit of an unknown, but the Linebackers are making a difference. The defensive backfield is beginning to jell. Chamarri Conner is re-establishing some dominance at the Whip position as a compliment to Reggie Floyd’s Rover. The real tests are to come; however.
There are some things to work out:
- No one is going to write home to mother extolling the virtues of the game design and play calling for this team. Ryan Willis is good when he gets a quality game plan, and good choices. The chronic third down and long situation is bad enough, but when play designs don’t include routes that either get near or past the line to gain in a volume that gives Willis some check downs, then we are going to see more low percentage deep balls to line receivers in 1st down territory. That has to be fixed.
- Willis needs some help. The biggest change would be to get him moving. Currently his pass plays are being run from a static pocket. He’s much better out in space away from the rush traffic where he can either throw or run. Running the Read/Option isn’t working because no one takes the “keeper up the middle” seriously. Willis is not pulling the ball and running up the middle. Whether or not that’s a coach’s call, or Willis is just missing the critical reads, no one is fooled by the Cheeto. It will continue to fail until someone figures to run something else as the bread and butter play.
- The D-Line is getting better but still has some difficulty closing down the inside runs for less than 3 yards. Teams are still consistently running inside for schedule yardage. That’s more often than not a size issue, and as Foster began to use the Whip and Mike combination to fill gaps at the Line of Scrimmage, all three opponents this season have been able to run for four yards, inside.
Reaching Out for some Coaching Answers
The most significant move this season hasn’t been player oriented. Except for injuries the roster churn for the first three games looks pretty much like we expected. There are no true 1s or 2s. The starters are mixed and matched depending on the situation.
The most daunting problem for the Hokies of 2019 is the same problem that the Hokies of 2018 encountered. The offense is strategically mal-planned, and suffers from poor tactical implementation (both deployment and adjustments). The only time the offense looks focused and effective is when it’s a full blown emergency. This looks like it removes the impulse to ram the ball up the middle into a pile of humans covered in plastic.
That’s where it looks like advisory Coach Jerry Kill is going to have the biggest influence and effect. If this team is going to use its investment in coaching wisdom, it will be in fixing what is wrong with the offense. That’s not talent, that’s operations.
There was, as we covered, a tremendously difficult but hidden mess developing in the first three seasons of the Fuente Era. The Hokies looked better than they were. There were three completely different quarterbacks playing in three seasons where the team behind them was also shedding talent.
This team is close to a break through. The final move was to see if a positive coaching addition can energize a moribund offense. Hopefully Jerry Kill can break the cycle of #thirdandpanicsburg.
Next Friday at 7pm the Hokies bite into the Coastal schedule with a contest against Duke at Lane Stadium. It will be the first critical game of the remainder of the season where every game is critical. The question to be answered is; can the Hokies handle the pressure and become what they can be?