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Is Justin Fuente Virginia Tech’s Coach of the Future?

Coach Fuente is entering a make-or-break season with the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Virginia Tech v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In August 2019, following Hokie football’s first losing season since 1992, Virginia Tech’s athletic director responded to a tweet from @JoshParcell regarding a conversation with Charlotte station WFNZ’s Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger). In the tweet Mr. Parcell merely asked, “Is Justin Fuente’s job in danger?” Mr. Babcock responded with one word, “No.”

During the 2020 season, there were fewer programs that suffered more personnel absences, both players and coaches, due to COVID. The Hokies posted their second losing season (5-6) in three years. When we revisit last year, we see three reasonable losses against then Top-10 teams (No. 8 UNC, No. 9 Miami, and No. 3 Clemson). Digging deeper, it is tough to stomach the Wake Forest loss and devastation Pitt wrought (47-14!) against the Hokies. Virginia Tech entered the last half of the season at 4-2, but then went on a four-game skid. The Hokies were able to salvage the season, and bowl eligibility, by bringing the Commonwealth Cup back to Blacksburg. But the Hokies elected not to play in a bowl. The decision was put to a vote and the players decided that they should end the nation’s longest bowl streak at 27 years. Coach Fuente was quoted saying, “‘Our players have decided to not play.’” It concerns me that players didn’t want to play, and how their motivation withered. Even with the pandemic considerations, I find this hard to stomach from a group that had been willing to play, in a similar environment, during 11 previous games. In the two years since Mr. Babcock tweeted “No,” to a question about Fuente’s future, the Virginia Tech football landscape has shifted considerably.

Recruiting has been lackluster. This year (2021) the Hokies managed a recruiting class ranked 43rd overall and tenth in the ACC. 2020 was one of the worst recruiting efforts in recent memory, clocking in at 73rd and dead last (14th) in the ACC. To illustrate that struggle further, Wake Forest had the No. 64 recruiting class (13th in the ACC). VT was out-recruited by Wake Forest. That isn’t to take away from what Coach Clawson has done at WF, which is impressive, but to illustrate how the Hokies have fallen in recruiting. Gone are the days of aggregating elite top-20 talent. VT now finds itself fighting for middle-tier performers. The 2022 recruitment class is currently in the top-25. That is a hopeful indication, but they won’t be playing this season and that recruiting class is subject to the fickle brutality of player mind changing.

A specific recruiting deficiency lamented and noted over the past five years has been a seeming inability for Virginia Tech to attract in-state talent. Certainly, college football has become more national, and recruits are courted by programs from all over. Virginia Tech used to be the premiere program for in-state talent to commit. The more seasoned of you will remember when VT was pursuing local national level talent like Percy Harvin and DeAngelo Hall. We would win and lose some, for example, Harvin went on to play for eventual national champions Florida while Hall came to the Hokies, but we were a primary entity fighting for top Virginia talent. Of the top ten ranked Virginia football players (247 Sports ranking), in the class of 2021, Virginia Tech recruited ZERO of them. UVA, on the other hand, has collected two of them. Three other ACC programs were able to snatch three others. Clemson attracted the top-rated player, OT Tristan Leigh. That makes sense, but Pittsburgh and Florida State collecting top ten talent away from VT is frustrating. If we expand out to the top-20 the picture doesn’t get much rosier. The Hoos and Pitt each recruited three out of the top-15. VT gets their first recruit with No. 16, Jalen Stroman. VT has No 16, 17, and 19. UVA recruited No. 4, 9, 15, and 20. Worst to see though, is VT getting out-recruited by ACC out-of-state rival, Pittsburgh, who recruited No. 7, 11, and 13. Things don’t get better the further back in time we go. In 2020, UNC sniped the top player in Virginia and the No. 14 player. Both UVA and ODU collected recruits higher than VT’s peak and only in-state player recruited, No. 23 Lakeem Rudolph. The 2015 class, the last recruiting class before Coach Fuente and staff took over the job, featured four 4-star recruits from VA (including Tim Settle) and 4-star talent from other states, for example, Mook Reynolds from NC. Virginia Tech has dealt with underwhelming recruitment in the last few years, something the fanbase and administration expected to improve with Coach Fuente’s arrival. That has not been the case.

A complicating factor that the current coaches must deal with, that didn’t impact the previous staff, is the savagery of the transfer portal. The portal giveth and taketh. Last year we acquired available talent like Herbert, but after the season we lost two of our top QBs (Hooker and Patterson). The portal protects players, which I support, but it introduces significant uncertainty for programs. Hendon Hooker, a starting QB in a Power-5 conference, departed to compete for the starting job in the SEC. He has since been named the second string QB for the Tennessee Volunteers. Patterson has been named the starter at North Dakota State. Although Hooker’s departure was painful, it has been rare for a starter to depart. It is difficult to fully determine how drastically departures have impacted VT. One area that I feel it hits the hardest is positional depth, an area that the Hokies have struggled with and will continue to this season.

The Hokies have often found themselves in a situation where they have been dependent on the portal for key starting positions, rather than recruiting and developing in-house talent. Braxton Burmeister is a transfer from Oregon. The starting QB, before Hendon Hooker, Ryan Willis, came from Kansas. Jerod Evans, who led the team to the ACC Championship in 2016, came from a junior college. Ideally the transfer portal can be a great help, especially to create competition and supplement depth. Virginia Tech has acquired some fantastic portal players. But, in my opinion, the Hokies dependency on the portal, to field starters, is a symptom of the program’s recruiting and player development woes.

Over the last three seasons Coach Fuente has been at the helm for some of VT’s more disappointing program losses. In 2017, then No. 13 VT (and defending Coastal champions) lost to ODU, 49-35. That was the first of seven defeats, leading to the Hokies first losing season since 1992. In 2019 the Commonwealth Cup found its way back to Charlottesville for the first time in 15 years, after UVA defeated VT and in doing so, won the Coastal. Last year, the Hokies provided another young, in-state, FBS program their first signature win, when the then No. 25 Liberty Flames beat the Hokies, in Blacksburg. That kicked off a four-game slide that saw the Hokies post their second losing season in three years. Granted, none of those losses are as embarrassing as the 2010 JMU loss, but at least then the Hokies comported themselves and responded by winning 11 straight games and the ACC, and winning the Coastal division the following year. Sadly, these recent shocking losses have not been met with the same fervent retort as the 2010 JMU defeat.

During Coach Fuente’s five years at VT, he has earned a record 38-26. His very first year resulted in a record of 10-4 and winning the Coastal Division, but since his inaugural season the Hokies have been watching the ACC Championship game from home. During his first two seasons he went 19-8. In the last three he managed a record of 19-18. It is troublesome that the Virginia Tech teams largely built with the players recruited and developed by the current administration and coaching staff have turned in some of the meagerest results in last three decades of the program.

Virginia Tech’s Offensive Coordinator and QBs Coach, Brad Cornelson, has been in those positions with Coach Fuente since he took over coaching the program. Over the last five years Mr. Cornelson has become something of a controversial figure. I am not going to deep dive into specific instances and issues, but he has been routinely criticized for fielding pedestrian / predictable offenses and not adjusting to the talent and abilities of the personnel available. A comprehensive illustration of these frustrations is last year’s 47-14 loss to Pitt. The Hokies only converted 3 of 11 third downs, failed on all three fourth down attempts, and only possessed the ball for 24:02. Many of those conversion stats were short yardage situations where the Hokies seemed dedicated to trying the same things repeatedly, rather than adjusting to the defensive realities facing them. Perhaps the most infuriating occurred when VT was knocking at the door, on Pitt’s one yard line. The Hokies failed to score on three straight running plays and turned the ball over on downs. Pitt then drove 99-yards for a TD.

Frustrations seemed to boil over during the Pitt postgame presser. When asked if he was considering taking over play calling duties from Coach Cornelson, Mr. Fuente snapped back, “That’s the most ludicrous crap I’ve ever heard. Next question.”

I believe Coach Fuente’s commitment to Mr. Cornelson is misplaced and a key component of the tenuous employment situation he now finds himself. The expected QB development and offensive execution simply hasn’t hit the mark in half a decade of trying. Mr. Cornelson has not demonstrated the adaptability and development necessary to be competitive in a Power 5 conference. Unless Coach Cornelson has some sort of epiphany, I expect the offense will continue to be pedestrian and reliant on the athleticism and talent of the players to salvage performance.

Second year defensive coordinator, Justin Hamilton, certainly had his hands full stepping into the shoes of the legendary Bud Foster. Though they suffered heavily from COVID-19 player and coaching absences (including Hamilton himself who missed two games), the defense absolutely must improve from last year’s execution after posting the unit’s worst statistical performance since 1973. At the time of hiring, there was concern about Mr. Hamilton being prepared and experienced enough to take the reins. While there was external talent available it would have been expensive. I like the idea of hiring from within and promoting a former Hokie to the job. Assuming COVID-19 doesn’t wreak havoc again we hope to see significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Little else helps a growing defense more than an offense that can maintain time of possession and score enough points to create a buffer for the inevitable miscues that come with a defensive transition. Unfortunately, the last few seasons have shown that the offense can often stall. I fear the defense will regularly find themselves in tough and exhausting situations.

The Virginia Tech Hokies have looked stagnant over the last three seasons. Now was the time that we were expecting Coach Fuente and staff to be fielding their best team, built with players that they’ve recruited for their established system. Instead, the program finds itself in a situation where it is reliant on transfers for starters at key positions, a dedication to coaches and philosophies that have been largely ineffective, and an unstable team identity. During this offseason, Coach Fuente has been listed on many “coaching hot seat” lists. He has a hefty buy-out and Mr. Babcock has been open about the athletic budget shortfalls, but I believe this is a make-or-break season for Coach Fuente and staff. So much so, I think the decision could be made before the season’s end. Coaches like Liberty’s Hugh Freeze and Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell will be on the list for any Power 5 football program looking to make a coaching change. Mr. Babcock has been masterful in managing the acquisition of coaches and if he feels that a change is needed, I don’t see him waiting if there is in-demand coaching talent he wants to see in orange and maroon.

Also... Bud Foster is still listed as the Special Assistant to the AD at Virginia Tech. Just saying...

After his first two seasons at the helm, I was concerned with the threat of Coach Fuente being hired away by a larger program. When Dallas was courting Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley I was on pins and needles. I was then, and remain now, convinced that if Riley had left for the NFL OU would have come with buckets of cash to buy out and hire away Coach Fuente. I no longer believe that is the case. I have significant concerns about Virginia Tech’s coaching cadre and whether they can lead the Hokies into the future and attain the expected results.


Is 2021 Coach Fuente’s Last with Virginia Tech?

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