Rock Bottom pt. 3: The Troubling Trajectory of Fuente's Program
It’s November 2020 and the Virginia Tech football program has hit rock bottom yet again. Something that was quite uncommon during the historic run from 1990 to 2011 is now commonplace. Did you miss the other rock bottoms of the Justin Fuente-era? Here’s a refresher:
Rock bottom part 1: September 22, 2018 - #13 Hokies lose to unranked and FBS newcomer Old Dominion University. After this win, ODU is nominated for an ESPY for Best Upset. The Monarchs would go on to finish 4-8.
Rock bottom part 2: September 27, 2019 - Hokies have the doors blown off on national television by a bad Duke team. The Hokies lose 45-10. Their worst loss at Lane Stadium in 45 years.
That brings us to our current rock bottom, which of course is last Saturday’s 38-35 stunning home defeat to #25 Liberty. The Flames were not even full fledged members of the FBS until 2019. The Hokies were 16.5 point favorites at kickoff.
Like many Tech faithful, we are left asking ourselves one question. Where do we go from here?
The most glaring downfall of the program? Its trajectory. Various aspects of the Justin Fuente regime have, for a lack of a better word, failed over the last half decade.
Justin Fuente's #Hokies have now lost to every other FBS team in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the last three years:— Anthony Romano (@ARomanoWDBJ) November 7, 2020
Old Dominion (2018)
There is an adage in the British Army called the Seven P’s. It reads,
“Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
So it stands to reason that due to Virginia Tech’s history of piss poor performances, they are not a properly prepared football team. You do not need to be a football savant to grasp this fact. There is no other way to describe it, and the metrics show that. Virginia Tech is one of the most penalized teams in college football, averaging about 54 yards per game. In the loss to Wake Forest, Virginia Tech committed an eye-popping 10 penalties for 112 yards. Penalties are preventable mistakes, and ones that properly-prepared football teams don’t make.
Another metric that reveals a lack of preparation is turnovers, which continue to haunt the Hokies this year, especially on special teams. The muffed punt return against Liberty set the Flames up for an easy score just one play later. Properly-prepared teams don’t make plays like that, especially against the likes of Liberty and Wake Forest.
Properly-prepared teams with a defensive legacy such as Tech’s do not surrender an average of 460 yards per game. We’re led to believe that this team’s motto is HARD SMART TOUGH. In what universe can you describe a team that gives up over 450 yards and 31 points a game, on average, as “hard,” “smart,” or “tough?”
One criticism of Virginia Tech’s football team, even before Fuente took the reigns as head coach, is that they often play to the level of their opponents. Just look at the ultimately successful 2010 season. Virginia Tech played all game with #3 Boise State, and lost in the final seconds. They then followed up this win by playing on the same level as FCS opponent James Madison before losing to them. That same phenomenon occurred throughout this season. We went tic for tac with ranked North Carolina, before ultimately losing. Then, we played at the level of Wake Forest and Liberty, losing to both. Again - these are not traits of properly-prepared football teams.
I don’t have the answers for solving this, but it is abundantly clear that the coaching staff is not putting this team in positions to win football games. Advocating to be Hard/Smart/Tough is great - but you have to be able to back it up with preparation.
A word of advice to the coaching staff: take a page out of the British Army’s playbook, and start thinking about how proper planning and preparation can prevent further piss poor performances.
Early in the fall I wrote a pretty intensive analytics study on college football recruiting as a whole and how Virginia Tech is stacking up against the competition. I’ll link the story below but I’ll give you the short and sweet right here:
Not only is Virginia Tech underrecruiting, they are underperforming for the level that they are recruiting at. It’s the perfect storm of mediocrity. Lack of depth at key positions that need depth such as defensive tackle and defensive secondary have plagued the Hokies over the past 5 years. And it’s not getting better. It’s actually getting far, far worse.
Boy oh boy, where to begin. Let's take this all the way back to Fuente’s best year so far at Tech, which happened to be his first year in 2016 with his roster compiled of 99% Beamer recruits (see recruiting for more on this topic).
I would argue that Fuente’s game adjustments that year were incredible. For example, the Hokies were down early in the first quarter (sound familiar?) to #3 Clemson in the ACC Championship game and what does Fuente allow his special teams coach to dial up? An aggressive fake punt to get a first down and eventually score before the end of the quarter. Fuente then follows that up with a miraculous turnaround against Arkansas in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl where the Hokies were down big early (sound familiar?) but scored 35 unanswered points in the second half to win their bowl game.
This was the peak of the Fuente program in so many ways: 10 win season, ACC championship game appearance, aggressive and creative play calling, and a bowl game win. Then, like the theme of this article, everything went downhill.
Since 2016, Fuente and his staff’s game adjustments have been abhorrent. There are hundreds of questionable adjustments Fuente and his staff fail to make every game. Take the Hokies most recent L for example. It took a large chunk of the game until the defense finally began to put a spy on Liberty’s electrifying QB. Everyone watching the game knows he is their leading rusher, yet it appeared no one on Tech’s defense was told to watch for the scramble.
It’s these small game adjustments that can change the outcome from a win to a loss, and more likely than not for the Hokies in the last five years, it’s a loss. The list goes on and on:
- Almost never deciding to receive the kickoff in 2020 even though our defense is one of the worst in the nation. The Hokies currently have a high-powered offense. Why not try playing with a lead for once?
- Rarely going up-tempo, even though this is what Fuente was brought in to do
- Almost never trying to score at the end of a half even if we have the ball and multiple timeouts. This one is one of the most perplexing adjustments Fuente could choose to make because the times where the Hokies run a rapid 2-minute offense they usually get points
- Allowing players to field punts or kickoffs that have a history of muffing the catch
Listen, I understand being a football coach is hard. I know you have to make hundreds of adjustments and tweaks every game and it’s nearly impossible to get them 100% right. However, failing to adjust in your first couple years is understandable, failing to adjust to the same issues three to four years in is concerning, but failing to adjust to the same prolonged issues fans see game in and game out after five years is reprehensible. Virginia Tech might be one of the only Power 5 schools in the country that allows this level of performance week in and week out without any consequences.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m very excited about how this team has been scoring the ball. The Hokies are the top rated rushing attack in America, even after a game without break out star Khalil Herbert. But this isn’t about the stats.
No, it’s about the one glaring weakness of this offensive coaching staff that has plagued the Hokies for the past five years: situational awareness.
This has been an issue for years, but I think the best way to convey this is by looking at the 3rd down play calls from the Liberty game. The Hokies went 4 of 10, which is actually an improvement on their conversion rate for the year.
1. 3rd & 8 - 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) - pass skeleton - Hooker scrambles and slips short of the line to gain
2. 3rd & 14 - 11 personnel - pass skeleton - Hooker scrambles for 8 yards
3. 3rd & 2 (from the 3 yard line) - 11 personnel - QB power - Hooker keeps up the middle for no gain
4. 3rd & 2 - 11 personnel - jet sweep option - Hooker up the middle for 13 yards
5. 3rd & 1 - 11 personnel - jet sweep option - Blackshear runs for 3 yards
6. 3rd & 7 - 11 personnel - jet sweep option - Hooker pass incomplete
7. 3rd & 1 - 11 personnel - jet sweep option - Hooker runs for 5 yards
8. 3rd & 6 - 11 personnel - QB draw - Hooker runs for 2 yards (Brain Johnson missed 50 yard field goal)
9. 3rd & 6 - 11 personnel - jet sweep option - Hooker runs for 19 yards
10. 3rd & 7 - 11 personnel - pass skeleton - Hooker scrambles for 4 yards
That’s right. Hooker ran the ball on 8 of 10 3rd down attempts, regardless of distance. The Hokies were in the exact same formation with the exact same players for every play. That is, without a doubt, the most lazy and uncreative playcalling I have ever seen. That’s high school football, and I apologize to the great high school coaches out there who would never attempt such a pathetic game plan.
But it went further than just 3rd downs.
At the end of the first half, the Hokies had the ball on the goaline up 3 points. With only time for one more play remaining, and getting the ball back to start the second half, Fuente made a decision many coaches would make and kicked the short field goal to go up 6. Now, here is where that logic starts to fall apart. The Hokies defense couldn’t stop Liberty all day, and everyone knew it. Kicking a field goal up one possession to then go up...by one possession is usually not the smartest move. However, Fuente’s logic of going up 6 points now then potentially scoring a TD to start the second half (and the maybe going for 2 to make it a 14 point game, if he were feeling a little dangerous) is not in and of itself wrong.
The issue came in the play calling to start the second half.
Raheem Blackshear ran the ball 3 consecutive times out of the same formation, moving the Hokies from the 25 to the 37 yard line. A decent start to a drive, but by no means an aggressive move to administer your superior talent on the opponent. Next, Hooker threw the ball 3 consecutive times out of, you guessed it, the same formation each time. The Hokies only gained 3 yards in those 3 plays and had to punt to a Liberty offense that looked like the Kansas City Chiefs out there. Liberty would waltz 95 yards down the field, score a touchdown, and claim a lead they would never give up.
Fuente and Cornelson decided they weren’t a good enough running team, which they are in fact the best in the nation with one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, to gain one yard against Liberty. They then didn’t even attempt to flip a page in the playbook and called the laziest, most elementary possession they could think of and punted the ball away. That lost the Hokies the game.
This is not a one-time event. It’s happened countless times in the past few years. This offense, for all of its successes, has failed to grasp the gravity of key situations time and time again. The lack of creativity is mind numbing, and the reliance on designed QB runs is a ball and chain that the team has been carrying around for years. If you want to look at the points per game total and praise Fuente and his offensive masterminds, I won’t stop you. I’ll just be over here looking at the wins and losses.
We tried to ice a college kicker on a 60 yarder 🥴 Damn!— ⚡J.C. Coleman⚡ (@jc_coleman4) November 7, 2020
We recently touched on this in an article published after the Wake Forest loss titled “Thoughts From a Pessimistic Hokie.” One of that article’s concluding passages fully summarizes the expectations of Virginia Tech fans, and why the current trajectory under Coach Fuente is disappointing:
Every team has its fair share of pessimists and Debbie Downers. Hell, I remember talking to Miami fans after last year’s game. Miami genuinely went from being Clemson-level dominant in the early 2000s to mid-tier in under 20 years. That is a genuine grievance. A similar dynamic exists for Virginia Tech, not in the sense of national championship wins (we have none) but in the sense that we were so consistently good for a long period. Virginia Tech’s program set the standard for itself between 1991 and 2011 when they had 13 seasons with over 10 wins and multiple conference championships. We simply have not seen that level of success replicated with consistency since the 2012 season. And when we don’t meet that standard, people get justifiably upset.
In case anyone is missing the point: most pessimistic Hokie fans (including me) react the way they do because of the success that this program has achieved.
We are not some backwater team that expects too much of itself and asks too much of its staff. We are Virginia Tech. We’ve won BCS bowl games. We’ve been to a National Championship. We’ve won the ACC championship multiple times. The success that most fans expect - 10 wins and a conference championship appearance - is not unrealistic, because it happened at regular intervals before.
When you see us lose to the Wake Forests and Dukes of the world, you have the right to be upset with the state of the program. As a fan and as an alum, it is perfectly reasonable to look around and ask yourself, “what the hell happened?”
Indeed, what the hell happened? To be fair to Coach Fuente, the drop-off occurred before he arrived in Blacksburg, but he has done nothing to assuage the fan base that he is steering the ship in the right direction. After Saturday’s loss to Liberty, outside of the few remaining Fu Fighters, not many dedicated Hokie fans believe that the program is on a trajectory to repeat the successes of the early 2000s. In the last 3 season, the Hokies are 18-15 with the program's best win coming on a neutral field against a West Virginia team that ended the season 7-6.
It bears repeating that most Virginia Tech fans are not unrealistic in their expectations. Again, no one thinks this program is a College Football Playoff or national title contender given our current fundraising, recruiting, and facilities. But 9-10 wins, regular appearances in the ACC title game, and top 25 recruiting classes are three expectations that fans should and do demand of the Virginia Tech coaching staff. This is a level of success that Virginia Tech regularly reached, and it is not unrealistic to expect that it can return to this level again.
These are challenging but broadly attainable expectations. When these expectations are not met, fans will rightly demand change.
Liberty loss was #Hokies first home loss to non-Power 5 foe since 2014.— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) November 8, 2020
There was a time Tech could survive a few mistakes in a game like this. Those times are gone.
VT is 27-5 against state opponents since 1980. 3 of those 5 losses have come in last 10 years (Liberty, ODU, JMU). https://t.co/I5AMng0Dau
Have you ever wondered what goes on in the Virginia Tech football program behind closed doors? If so, you are not alone. During the five years under Fuente the football program has become more and more secretive, especially during the offseason. Aside from the occasional podcast interview here and there, trying to get information about what is going on often leaves fans in the dark. This disconnect is one of the root causes why the fanbase is starting to turn on Fuente.
Need examples of what a transparent football program looks like? Take a peek into the Alabama and Clemson’s of the world. There’s always a constant stream of information to keep their fans apprised of developments and goings on in the program. Ever wonder what an Alabama team cookout at Nick Saban’s lake house looks like? Not a problem. Interested in seeing what the Clemson players do in their down time? Not an issue.
To their credit, the Hokies have done a bit better in the virtual content side of the transparency. The one-on-one player interviews (“Hard Hat Series”) with each other were great. This is what fans want to see. They want to see what it’s really like inside the football program.
As a fanbase we are not asking to see the playbook. We are not asking to see the in-depth injury report. We understand there are things that are better to be played closer to the chest. However, if you want to regain trust from the fans and ultimately regain trust from those donating money, information needs to be more freely given. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
This category has been one of the more disagreed upon among fans. From the get-go, Fuente has set a clear “My Way or the Highway” precedent for his football program. Some players have absolutely bought into that, as many of VT’s best players over the years remain extremely loyal to him.
Last month, Sam Rogers avidly praised and defended Fuente in a sitdown with the Sons of Saturday. Current players such as Dax Hollifield, Tre Turner and Divine Deablo have continually stood up for their coach in front of the media. For all his downfalls, Fuente has done a great job of getting players to give 110% to him and his cause.
But the flip side, however, is that a decent number of players don’t quite mesh with that coaching style. There are two words that seem to define every Hokie offseason: Transfer Portal. Many formerly contributing players have chosen to take their talents elsewhere for a myriad of reasons.
We often don’t know the exact reasons why players decide to transfer, but no matter how you spin it, there are former Virginia Tech players on other teams right now that would certainly contribute if they were still in Blacksburg. Fuente notoriously “tells it how it is” to his players, and that has likely caused talent and depth that this team needs to walk out the door.
Here is a list of VT transfers who could have potentially been contributing this season:
Damon Hazelton - WR - Missouri. Two-time All-ACC performer at VT led the team in receptions in 2018 and caught 16 touchdowns as a Hokie. Hazelton has 17 catches for 175 yards in four games this season.
Tavante Beckett - LB - Marshall. First Team All-CUSA and co-defensive MVP at Marshall last season, leading the team and conference with 121 tackles. Has 58 tackles and 1.5 sacks in six games this season.
Kalil Pimpleton - WR - Central Michigan. First Team All-MAC last season as both a WR and punt returner with 82 catches for 894 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 14.9 punt return yards per game.
Cam Goode - DT - UCF. 300-pound defensive tackle who has 12 tackles in six games this season, including 5.5 TFL and two sacks.
Samuel Denmark - WR - Coastal Carolina. 12 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown this season.
Jacoby Pinckney - WR - Appalachian State. Former four-star receiver in the 2019 class transferred away after a redshirt year with the Hokies. He is sitting out this season at App State due to NCAA transfer rules.
Bryce Watts - CB - UNC. The notoriously speedy DB appeared in 12 games for the Hokies in 2018, becoming a regular contributor in the secondary. Left to transfer to UNC, sat out 2019 and opted out of the 2020 season.
This list is far too long and it includes many positions in which the Hokies lack substantial depth. Once the transfer portal was instituted for the 2018-19 offseason, Fuente has struggled to keep guys out of it.
Yes, Fuente has brought in significant transfers in return such as Khalil Herbert, Raheem Blackshear, Brock Hoffman and Braxton Burmeister. But there are too many players opting to leave early in their careers and thriving elsewhere.
Even if the argument was that many of these players’ contributions would have been minimal by staying in Blacksburg, it is also a poor reflection of Fuente and his staff’s ability to develop players. Players like Beckett, Pimpleton and Goode have been developed into potential NFL-caliber players, and it is difficult to assume it would have been the same case in Blacksburg. Regardless, that is at least three potential pro players who have walked out the door in the past two offseasons.
Fuente is as polarizing a head coach as they come. With disgruntled players leaving the team being one case, drama and scandal seem to follow this team wherever they go. Who could forget the infamous Sports Illustrated article detailing the locker room turmoil happening in the 2018 season? Or the rumors that circulated last offseason of Fuente being a top candidate to become Baylor’s head coach?
No matter what your opinion is of Fuente’s demeanor, it is pretty clear diplomacy is not exactly his specialty. For all the years Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech program was a tight ship, allowing no dirty laundry to be aired in the public sector, Fuente’s has been just the opposite.
We’ve heard about it numerous times: the Gargantuan Buyout. But that $12.5M paycheck (that will become an only slightly more affordable $10M at the end of the season) is not the only glaring issue with Justin Fuente’s contract.
Did you know Fuente is the second-highest paid coach in the ACC? And that includes Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. This is according to USA Today’s NCAA Salaries. Fuente makes a whopping $4.25M a year, second only to Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($8.3M). Where does this rank among other Power Five head coaches? Fuente has the 25th-largest salary in the country.
Another important note in this contract is not just the high salary, but how it compares to the athletic department’s overall funding. Despite paying their head coach the second-most among ACC schools, Virginia Tech was reported as having only the sixth-highest revenue of the eight ACC schools listed in USA Today’s 2018-19 NCAA Finances.
The Hokies made $96.8M in revenue in 2018-19, meaning they pay roughly 4.3% of their annual revenue to Fuente. Compared to the other ACC schools we have data for, Florida State pays just 2.6% to their head coach while Clemson pays 6.2%, Louisville pays 2.3%, UVA pays 3.7%, UNC pays 3.2%, NC State pays 3.5% and Georgia Tech pays 3.6%. Again - only second to Clemson.
The contract itself is not the issue; Fuente was given pay raises/extensions after both the 2016 and 2017 seasons in which the Hokies amassed 19 wins. Whit Babcock and the athletic department had every reason to believe Fuente was a homerun hire, and he was rumored to be garnering attention from the wealthier Florida State and LSU. Not to mention, Fuente’s ties to the Oklahoma/Texas area made him susceptible to being wooed away by the endless pockets from schools in that area, similar to what happened with Buzz Williams and Texas A&M. To keep his guy, Babcock had to act quickly and aggressively. He did so, and with hindsight being 20/20, many now look back at that move with disgust.
The problem here lies with how Babcock believed in Fuente enough to heavily open up the checkbook for him, and it has since resulted in disappointment. If a coach is being paid the second-most in a conference, his team should, on average, be the second-best in that conference.
Unfortunately, that has never been the case, even during that 2016-17 run. The Hokies have been to the ACC Championship Game one time under Fuente in 2016, which one could consider as being the second-best team that year. But in the final AP Poll that season, VT was ranked as the third-best team, being ranked behind #1 Clemson and #8 Florida State.
Following 2016, the Hokies finished as the fourth-best ACC team in 2017 (#24 overall), tied for fourth-best in 2018 (unranked) and tied for third-best in 2019 (unranked). The Hokies have only finished ranked twice under Fuente, neither of which was after his most recent contract extension.
The point is this: other ACC teams are finding the same or more success than the Hokies despite spending less money on their coach. Since Babcock threw the kitchen sink at Fuente, he has failed to live up to his salary.
So, what's next?
This is where we all need to take a deep breath and look at the situation as a whole. Virginia Tech can't fire Justin Fuente. The athletics department doesn't have the money. It's also key to note that the program has added a plethora of young coaches, many of whom are key recruiters going forward. You can't risk losing that edge when you don't have winning to sell to recruits anymore. The Hokies are, indeed, stuck.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and the Hokies are insane under Fuente. The egregious lack of preparation for even the most one dimensional of opponents is paralyzing. This week, Fuente is taking control of the scout team offense in order to build up some sort of accountability in the area. That's a start, but its far from enough. It may be time for Fuente to grab a hold of the playbook. He was the man at the helm for TCU when they were winning the Rose Bowl and lighting up the scoreboard. It's something he has a knack for, but has been ever so reluctant to take over. This program needs a spark, and it's not coming in the form of a jet sweep option play.
Finally, this program needs success. Big wins and momentum go a long way in college football, and the Hokies don't have it right now. There are many factors, but it starts with the head coach. He's the leader of the program and he needs to take charge and lead it. The best comment that could be thrown Fuente's way at the end of the Liberty game was that he admitted his mistake and he's a good guy. That's what you want from your head coach, but if we've reached the point where the fans and alumni are expected to accept 'he's a good guy' as good enough for a head football coach then this isn't the program we thought it was.