Justin Fuente is widely regarded as one of the premiere offensive minds in college football — but the Hokies left most fans wanting more on the offensive side of the ball last season.
Virginia Tech finished T-No. 66 nationally in scoring offense, No. 120 (3.80) in points per trip inside the 40, and No. 107 (1.07) in IsoPPP (points per play, explosiveness).
Fuente has a returning starter at quarterback on the roster for the first time since he's been in Blacksburg, yet the offense seems bound to go through some big changes as the Hokies look to replace Cam Phillips and Travon McMillian and build more depth at the skill positions (or perhaps even sort out a QB battle).
In short, questions abound on offense as spring practice opens; luckily, Fuente took some time to answer them with The Key Play last week. We discussed how the offense is changing from a scheme perspective, which players could emerge as playmakers next year and even how the proliferation of the spread at the professional level is changing recruiting.
I've interviewed Fuente one-on-one only a few times, but this was perhaps the most candidly I've heard him speak about X's and O's, when he's normally quite guarded on the matter. Enjoy, and check back for part two of our conversation later this week.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Key Play: When a coach comes into a new job, I often hear analysts talk about how they need time to get "their guys" into the program, players that fit their system. As you get ready to kick off your third season in Blacksburg, do you feel like you've managed that? Which positions need work in that regard?
Justin Fuente: I think each job's different, and it's not as simple as this is year one, this is year two, this is year three. We inherited an older team in year one that was hungry and talented and ready to try and win every game they played.
And then in year two, we had all those guys back on defense and none of them back on offense. Now, we're young everywhere. It's just a little bit of a different deal.
When we took over at Memphis, we were awful to start with and it took us until our third year to really reap the benefits of what we're doing. It just hasn't been a linear approach for this situation. We're sitting here with 75 percent of our players are sophomores or younger and what's kind of cool is when I look at our offseason numbers and look at the gains we've made in the weight room, we've made huge gains, but that's because there's so much room for us to make gains.
When you're an older, more mature team, you can't make many gains because guys are already pretty strong, but for us, we made huge gains because this offseason and that's indicative of us being really young.
TKP: Let's talk about the offense, specifically. One of the problems with that youth you mentioned on offense last year seemed to be that, outside of Cam Phillips, there weren't many guys who could make an explosive play and you had to settle for long, methodical drives. What held the offense back in that department last year, and how will you make more big plays this year?
JF: At times, we didn't make them at various places. On the offensive line, at tight end, at running back, at quarterback, or at wide receiver. The best thing we can do to make bigger plays down the field is execute the base fundamentals that we're teaching.
The bottom line is we didn't make the unblocked hat miss nearly enough at running back. We got the ball to the unblocked hat a lot last year; maybe more than any other year I've ever had. And yet, we did not have the home run runs because we didn't make that guy miss. And we weren't good enough on the outside to go make big plays pushing the ball down the field.
We'd miss it here or there. It's got to be a collective effort, we've got to have another year of maturity and another year of improvement, another year of strength and understanding moving forward to help facilitate those things.
TKP: You mentioned the running backs, so let's talk about what you want to see from that position, which has delivered inconsistent results since you've been in Blacksburg. While your offense has featured the backs on screens and wheel routes, are you trying to incorporate them into the short passing game more this coming season? Our film reviewer has noticed that defenses seem to ignore the backs on third and long situations, in particular.
JF: We'll see what their skillsets are. Steven Peoples is not that guy. Doesn't mean you can't flip him the ball out in the flat, but that's not his skillset to line up at wide out and go make plays. But he does have a unique skill set that I want to use, that's very valuable to this team.
So as we continue to look at those other guys, Deshawn [McClease] is a guy you wish could do some more of that, and we'll continue to see if he can do some of those things and get those guys involved.
I do think where we're headed is maybe with a more versatile tight end set than we've had before. Between Chris [Cunningham] and Dalton [Keene] and now Drake [DeIuliis] coming off his redshirt year, I've been really impressed by his ball skills. That may be the versatile direction we're able to go. I don't know, we haven't practiced yet in the spring, but that's something we've at least talked about, that those guys may have a unique skill set that may aid us in some of our quest for versatility.
Because that's what we've always wanted is versatility. I want tight ends who can block and also line up at receiver and be a threat. I want running backs who can run the football but also catch the ball and move around and be a threat. I want wide receivers that can play wideout and also move into the backfield and carry the ball.
We've got some of those guys, they're just really young. They're not ready to take that step. They did some of those things last year, but we need to continue to develop those things.
TKP: Just watching the Super Bowl and the NFL last year, with the Eagles and other teams constantly using spread concepts and RPOs, I couldn't help but think about how similar that all looked to what you try to do on offense. Has that made it easier to sell your offense to recruits hoping to go to the NFL? The conventional wisdom used to be that recruits would be hesitant to play in the spread because it didn't prepare them well for the NFL. Is that changing?
JF: That's a fair question. I don't know the answer to it.
I know this: I coached Andy Dalton and he made the Pro Bowl his rookie year, and he called me and told me, 'Everything we're doing is the same as what we did at TCU.'
Whether you're in the gun or under center or whatever it is, you're still running concepts and you may carry more concepts in an NFL game, which I'd expect you to, or they may be more in depth or you may have more options off certain concepts because they're professionals. But at the core of it, you're still making decisions, you're still throwing off players, you're trying to take what people are giving you and ultimately you've got to win some one on one battles.
I don't know that it's made easier in recruiting. I'm not out there telling everybody we're doing the same thing as the Eagles, or that the Eagles are doing what we've been doing.
But what I am telling them is we're preparing our kids to play at the next level and if the chips fall right for you, then you will be prepared to step into that arena and succeed.