Justin Fuente and The Promise of Offense at Virginia Tech

Advanced statistical breakdown of the Hokies' offense in Years 1 and 2 of the Fuente Era, and what expect in Year 3.

[Mark Umansky]

Perhaps the biggest frustration among Virginia Tech fans over the final years of the Frank Beamer era, was the Hokies' ineptitude on offense. An offense that was rated 7th nationally in 2010 by S&P+ had slipped to 94th by 2014. Even Bud Foster can't produce a defense capable to regularly cover an offense with that many shortcomings. As the offense stalled down the stretch of Beamer's tenue, the Hokies struggled for bowl eligibility more than once.

Shortly after Beamer announced his retirement, Whit Babcock came through with everything Hokie Nation desired in a replacement. As a person, Justin Fuente comes across as a younger version of Beamer — someone who embraces the program's family atmosphere and behaves on and off the field in a way that makes fans proud. His hiring was without drama, and he was open and honest with the Memphis team he was leaving. But perhaps most importantly, he had serious offensive credibility, especially with regard to quarterback development, and he brought most of his offensive staff to Tech with him. For the first time in several years, fans had optimism that Virginia Tech would be a force on offense. Pairing a productive offense with a Foster defense was tantalizing.

In Fuente's last game at Memphis, the Tigers' offense, ranked 27th in S&P+, dropped 63 points on SMU. Just three years prior, the team's offense had been rated 117th.

Promise Delivered?

Fuente's first season in Blacksburg seemed to set the stage that a high-scoring powerhouse was on its way. First year JUCO transfer QB Jerod Evans and WR Isaiah Ford rewrote Tech's record books in 2016. The former broke single-season records and the latter destroyed career records. Evans' play pushed his name in the 2017 Heisman conversation. However, he unexpectedly declared for the NFL draft. Instead of building on that progress, another first year QB — Josh Jackson — would have to take the helm. The offense took a step back in 2017, ranking even behind the final Beamer-led teams:

Few, if any, anticipated Tech's offense to be as inept as ever in Fuente's second campaign. Let's explore the decline and expectations moving forward.

The Passing Game

Passing S&P+ shows Tech's air game has improved in the last two seasons, but remains well below the elite levels fans experienced during Tyrod Taylor's years at the helm:

Given the offense as a whole regressed from 2016 to 2017, it's unsurpring the pass game did too. There are several possible explanations for this, most notably the loss of Ford and Bucky Hodges, and the reduced running threat Jackson posed compared to Evans. It could also be that Jackson is a less accurate QB. Compare the stats for the primary receivers both QBs threw to. Cam Phillips and C.J. Carroll are the two receivers both Evans and Jackson had at their disposal. While each was able to improve on their 2016 yards per catch, both took substantial dives in catch rate:

Yards per Catch Catch Rate
Player 2016 2017 2016 2017
Cam Phillips 12.9 13.6 78.40% 66.40%
C.J. Carroll 8 10.5 72.00% 63.30%
Isaiah Ford 13.9 × 56.00% ×
Bucky Hodges 14.4 × 59.30% ×
Sean Savoy × 11.6 × 62.90%
Eric Kumah × 11.6 × 52.80%

It would not be fair to put this drop-off entirely on Jackson's shoulders, however. With the early departures of Ford and Hodges, opposing defenses were less concerned about deep threats. Additionally, Phillips would now typically find himself lined up against a team's top corner, who previously would have been focused on Ford.

Given the single-season records Evans was able to break in his lone year as the Hokies' QB1, it might be surprising that the passing game in 2016 wasn't more highly rated. Consider the records he broke — total yards, total TDs, total passing yards — all of which are cumulative stats. He broke these records through a combination of volume and solid play. Evans attempted 422 passes and 172 rushes in 2016 — 107 and 26 more than Taylor's highest totals, and 240 and 41 more than Michael Vick's largest tallies, respectively. The only QB with similar volume in a season is Logan Thomas' final two seasons. But Thomas completed 54% of passes for 7.0 YPA, and Evans completed 63.5% for 8.4YPA. Additionally Thomas' rushes went for 2.6 YPC while Evans went for 4.2.

Contributing to Evans' volume, the offense ran at the 16th-fastest adjusted pace in 2016, resulting in more plays than in prior years:

(Data is not available prior to 2014.)

In 2017, Tech returned to a more moderate pace of play.

Fuente arrived at Tech as a coach widely considered to be an elite QB developer, not an elite QB recruiter. (Yet he signed three, 4-star QBs thus far during his Tech tenure.) His two most notable students have been Andy Dalton during his time as OC for TCU, and Paxton Lynch while head coach at Memphis. Consider the QB rating of each during their time as starter:

Player Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
Andy Dalton 118.5 129.2 151.8 166.5
Paxton Lynch 110.4 137.6 157.5 -

Fuente stepped in during Dalton's second season, so the gap from year 2 to year 3 is the first under his wing. The progression by each of these QBs is remarkable, and this history cannot be forgotten as fans ponder how Jackson may perform in his second season. An improvement in rating equivalent to the average of Lynch and Dalton would make him a likely top 10 QB in college football. Two is a small sample size, but is the best data we have on what progression might look like. On top of that, each of those prior QBs continued their progression between their second and third seasons under Fuente.

Jackson certainly struggled at times, and poor accuracy in the Camping World Bowl, and on deep balls, left a bad taste in the mouth of many. But he was a freshman, and his rating of 135.2 compares very favorably to Dalton and Lynch in their debut seasons. Additionally, among freshman QBs he rated 2nd to UGA's Jake Fromm.

Before calling for 4-star 2018 signee Quincy Patterson to immediately take the reins, consider the need for the highly-touted recruit to learn the offense and develop better mechanics himself. Combine that with the possibility of Jackson's 2018 jump, especially with more experienced WRs. Should Jackson takes a step up from year one to year two similar to Dalton and Lynch (average 19-point improvement), Virginia Tech is looking at a QB with a top 15 rating in the nation.

Fuente, QB developer, is for the first time since taking the job in a position to actually develop a quarterback.

The Rushing Game

The running game throughout Fuente's tenue is comparable to the sunset of the Beamer era. The latter coincides with the absence of elite tailbacks Ryan Williams, David Wilson, and Darren Evans (2012-15):

In the more successful years with talented backs, a few players handled the overwhelming bulk of the carries. However, recently — in a trend that started prior to Fuente — a huge number of players are getting a meaningful number of carries throughout the season. Consider the number of players each season with at least 10 carries:

The quarterback has often been featured in the Hokies' run game, but under Fuente both Evans (2016) and Jackson (2017) each led Tech in carries. Outside of that, since 2010 the only QB to top Tech in carries was Thomas (2012). However, the quarterback isn't taking an unusually high percentage of the carries compared to prior years:

The remaining carries are simply getting distributed across many other players on the field. Most notably, the wide receivers are getting a much higher percentage of the load as jet sweeps are frequently part of Fuente's influence/misdirection attack:

Given Justin Fuente's reputation as a quarterback developer, it might be easy to think that the team runs a pass-first offense. However, if anything the team is rushing more often than previously and is a fairly balanced attack:

In Fuente's final season at Memphis the Tigers had an adjusted run rate of 49.1%, just a little below the median team.

Situational Trends

One of the more notable trends in the first two seasons has been situational — how the offense performs in standard downs versus passing downs. As a refresher, passing downs are 2nd down with 8+ yards to go or 3rd down with 5+ yards to go, when a passing play is much more likely. Standard downs are all other downs when the play call is less predictable.

On standard downs, the team made a major leap from 2016 to 2017, moving from the 95th to the 40th-rated team:

Success on standard downs means the team is set up to avoid passing downs, which are easier to defend given their predictability. In a season where the offense left a lot to be desired, this is a definite bright spot.

Conversely, when the team did find itself in a passing down last season, the results were dismal:

It was a bright spot in 2016 when Tech rated No. 16 nationally, but the performance plummeted No. 109 a year later. Failed conversions on passing downs often mean a punt or field goal attempt; this stat alone likely explains the regression of the offense as a whole. Put together with the success on standard downs, the data paints a picture of team that often moved the ball but stalled before scoring a touchdown.

According to FEI, the Hokies gained 47.6% of available yards in 2017 (53rd nationally) and gained at least one first down on 78.8% of drives (13th nationally), but scored a touchdown on just 23.4% of drives — 89th nationally. On drives that gained at least one first down, the team scored a touchdown on 29.6% of drives — 109th nationally. Stalled drives were a major issue.

What to Expect in 2018

Much of 2018 is speculative at the moment, as injuries will surely happen in practice and at many positions there is no certainty around who will start. Personally, I'd be surprised if Jackson is not the starting quarterback. Possibly derailing that would be injury, Patterson turns out to be a generational player that can't be kept off the field immediately, or Ryan Willis performs much better than Jackson in camp, enough to overcome his experience and knowledge of the playbook.

Jackson might not be as dynamic of a runner as some past Tech quarterbacks, but if Fuente relied on his legs regularly in 2017 then it's hard to see 2018 looking much different. I'd expect Jackson to once again shoulder a heavy load of carries and perhaps even lead the team again unless an elite running back emerges that gets a large share of carries. Additionally, there is no reason to believe receivers will not continue to get more carries.

Speaking of receivers, there is perhaps no position that would more likely determine the success of the offense in 2018. It's hard to argue with past QB development by Fuente, and looking back at the receivers that Lynch and Dalton targeted it is obvious that the QB's success is not dependent on having a dominant WR. Neither QB had successive seasons with the same leading WR. Keeping Ford or Phillips might be less important than keeping Jackson in terms of success.

Fuente's first two seasons at Memphis only showed slight improvement on years before his arrival. As he brought in more talent and installed his system, year 3 showed more significant improvement and even larger gains were made in year 4. Notably, however, the team has not dropped off offensively since and posted the best rating yet in 2017:


2018 Virginia Tech Offensive Forecast

S&P+ Offense Rating: 45th nationally
S&P+ Passing Rating: 20th nationally
S&P+ Rushing Rating: 70th nationally

Statistical Leaders:

QB – Josh Jackson, 64% completion for 3,300 yards, 8.4 YPA
WR – Sean Savoy, 70 receptions for 900 yards
RB – Deshawn McClease, 150 rushes for 700 yards

Comments

QB – Josh Jackson, 64% completion for 3,300 yards, 8.4 YPA
WR – Sean Savoy, 70 receptions for 900 yards
RB – Deshawn McClease, 150 rushes for 700 yards

This has me strangely confident? If these are our leaders, and the players behind them aren't too far off (It's not unrealistic to believe we can find an additional 1200 yards of offense from other backs and receivers), and our special teams continues to beamerball (yes, it can be used as a verb), we might be able to buy our defense some time to grow up.

Question for the more statistically savvy people - Did Fuente have an issue with stalled drives in his time at Memphis?

Twitter me

Grimsley might not let Savoy on the field enough to pick up 70 catches...

I like what I have seen from Grimsley, but my bold bet is Patterson leads the team in receiving. I also think Holston and McClease will finish the year with similar yardage - the 1-2 punch. And I think the H-back/TE position gets more touches than it has been getting. In general, you would think that the ball gets distributed more across all the skill players this year than last.

I don't think Savoy will play as much in the slot. I expect a four man rotation of Patterson, Hazelton, Kumah, and Savoy outside with Grimsley and Carroll in the slot. I certainly could be wrong but ever snap where I watched Savoy, he was playing as a split end or flanker except for the INT on the opening drive. Jackson is very comfortable throwing to Grimsley as we saw in the bowl and this spring.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

I did not check for all seasons, but in 2015 they were 18th in % of available yards gained and 24th in % of drives resulting in a touchdown....those align pretty well so I'd say it was not an issue.

Me opening a new stats article in the offseason.

The Orange and Maroon you see, that's fighting on to victory.

Count me as someone that thought the "offense" would be much better under Fuente than Beamer, and honestly would be "better" than it is now. It's only year 3, but I was hoping the days of the QB carrying the load rushing and the called draw plays on key third downs were over. I think this year we will see improvement and more of a cohesive "offense" that we all envisioned.

I'm not trying to pick a fight, but this is the first thing I thought of when you quoted "offense".

The Orange and Maroon you see, that's fighting on to victory.

Sorry, just trying to avoid someone honing in on one advanced stat we do well on offense and shouting that IT IS IMPROVED... didn't want that argument either.

I just sit on my couch and b*tch. - HokieChemE2016

Stiney's version of running a QB is completely different then Fuente's version of running the QB.

What's
Important
Now

I don't think Savoy will put up those numbers. It sounds like Grimsley has passed him as the slot receiver?

How is it possible that Memphis's pass and rush S&P rankings both fell (rush fell a LOT) but their total S&P offense ranking went up significantly?

On a similar note, 2017 had us having a higher passing and rushing than in the same previous years that had a higher overall ranking?

The rankings are all relative... and the differences between 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th, 50th, etc etc vary widely year to year.

There may have been a very large tight cluster in the Running Game ranks that in 2017 that Memphis wound up on the back end of, while in 2016 they could have put up similar numbers, maybe .25 YPA better, but just enough to move them past 50 teams to the front of that tight cluster (hypothetical example - I have not reviewed the clustering that closely)

This is pretty accurate...the teams cluster pretty tightly except in the tails so a small difference from year to the next can make a big difference in rank. I didn't pull the numbers, but they may also have shifted their pass/run mix towards what they're better at.

Here you go:

As the offense lingered down the stretch of Beamer's tenue, the Hokies struggled for bowl eligibility more than once.

Languished?

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

Languished

Labored?

They'll really get after ya

Lounged

Lingard(ed)

If a tree falls in Scott Stadium does it make a sound?

Leviosahhh

“Stats are for losers.” -Mel Kiper Jr.

wait, I thought it was Leviohhsa

"Some days you’re a horse and some days you’re a horse’s ass. I’ve been a horse’s ass for a little while." - Roy Halladay

Was supposed to be stalled, just a really bad transposition mistake. As always, I appreciate the TKP Editorial Board™ for its diligence.

TKP Editorial Board™


(and yes, I get the sarcasm, but Imma claim this)

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

Thanks for being "that guy" so others of us don't feel compelled to be. Somebody gotta do it.

Reel men fish on Wednesdays

Blame it on the support staff.

VHokie

I think we can give them a pass.

"It's a miracle in Blacksburg, TYROD DID IT MIKEY, TYROD DID IT!"

It is amazing how well that Offensive Standard Down plot correlates with my perception of the offense each year.

If you subscribe to the belief that Jackson was hurt in the Miami game and was playing on one leg the rest of the year, the plummeting offensive stats aren't too terribly worrisome, as they should bounce back nicely. The main concern I have is with the running game. We have to get something going there.

But, we should have a massive injection of receiving talent this year. I still say to keep an eye on Hazleton, I have a feeling he's going to be a beast for us.

"Some days you’re a horse and some days you’re a horse’s ass. I’ve been a horse’s ass for a little while." - Roy Halladay

No what's worrisome is that there was not other competent QB on the roster, thus Jackson had to play at what 65%? as some have speculated. THAT is what is worrisome. We had 1 competent QB on the roster last year apparently.

And with the RS coming off Hooker, this year we have 2 or 3, depending on what happens with Patterson.

So what's your point?

"Some days you’re a horse and some days you’re a horse’s ass. I’ve been a horse’s ass for a little while." - Roy Halladay

My point is that Josh Jackson- a RS freshman himself had to play hurt the last half of the year. Some say it was a significant injury that clearly hurt the offense in terms of production. My point is that having one QB ready to play is not ideal for any team with conference championship aspirations.

I'm really not that worried about the past.

QB situation is much better now.

Fuente effectively had two starting QBs go down last year: first with Evans' surprise departure to the NFL after just one season, which took away Jackson's redshirt year. Then Jackson actually gets hurt, making a 3rd string QB a forced (but unfortunately non-viable) option. Most teams going through almost 2 QBs in less than a calendar year would suffer like ours did. It is what it was, and quite commendable the job the Jackson did given the injuries.

Jackson redshirted when Evans started.. so no it was not taken away last year. And all top programs have nfl departures. Should not be an excuse for a team that wants to win the ACC to have one QB that can play

I agree that our lack of QB depth in the past has been worrisome, but I think CJF has done everything he can realistically do to improve that situation. He brought in Evans who now holds most of our passing records and suddenly left a year early (not CJF's fault). He held on to JJ and since has recruited two 4 star QBs. When Evans left, he recognized the dire depth situation and brought in two transfers. If we continue to pull in a 4 star QB 3 out of every 4 recruiting cycles, our depth will be in good shape, but I don't think we get to a plug-and-play depth situation until you have a couple QBs with multiple years in the system.

Fuente has brought in a 4* qb every recruiting cycle he's been here, plus a couple of transfers to fill in the gaps. Trying (and apparently succeeding) to find a fault in an aspect that is an unabashed, objective, huge success is pretty impressive.

We had 1 competent QB on the roster last year apparently.

Chase Mummau dressed as a punter disagrees

You will see this game, this upset and this sign next on ESPN Sportscenter. Virginia Tech 31 Miami 7

We will be solid this year...on offense. I see Mclease tearing up the running game. I wish Fuente was adjust to his player's strength. McLease for example is a very fast back but to make him have to miss a guy in a phone booth is very difficult. If he is able to use his speed similar to the touchdown he scored in the spring game,that would suit to his abilities.

Hokies, Local Soccer, AFC Ajax, Ravens

i'm still not happy about losing to Georgia tech..i hope we can finally beat them after 2 straight losses

Hokies, Local Soccer, AFC Ajax, Ravens

Yup. Gotta win that Techmo Bowl.

It's all about The VPISU
VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804.
Rockin the Bakken.
GO: Freeman Rebels, Keydets, Black Knights (the VMI of the North), NY Rangers & Giants, and ATL Braves.

I'm quite excited for the offense this season. More so than the defense which is unusual for me. I'm a JJ fan and I think that he has had a lot of time to mature as a QB and hopefully as a person following certain events. The WR corps actually might be one of our best units? That is always promising,

Defense might be rough though. At least for Bud's standards. We have almost no experience at DB and LB. The dline has me excited though and I expect Hill and Gaines to tear it up. Finally Walker is who I expect to be our best player.

What team is that outlier for 2014 rushing offense? That is abysmal.

Wake forest with a rating of 40.3. The next lowest was in the 70s with the majority of teams in the 80s-90s.

I just double checked to confirm my suspicions. Yes, it was that season.

Fuck.

The Orange and Maroon you see, that's fighting on to victory.

The most ill prepared VT ever was under Frank Beamer was the Gator Bowl in 1997... Second was that Wake Forest game. Disgrace on every level. The defense could not have played better. Our offense was flat out putrid, soft, dysfunctional, etc etc etc. that day. Beamer should have realized on the bus home that he was "done" as a big time coach at that point.

dc, I like your optimism, it's.......refreshing.

"Don't go to, go through"

Well of course WF was that low when everyone knew what plays they were going to run

"Some days you’re a horse and some days you’re a horse’s ass. I’ve been a horse’s ass for a little while." - Roy Halladay

The boy ain't right.

Great article. Only thought is the Memphis comparison may not be as relevant, taking the "bad to good" vs. "good to great" improvement.

Fuente did great at Memphis but that was a horrible team so was probably easier to show drastic improvement with good coaching and recruiting. I think these next 2 seasons will show if he can make a similar change from a average / good starting point. So far I'm not sure he's demonstrated significant change, especially given the top players (to date under Fuente) have been the prior staff's recruits with the exception of Evans.

I'm willing to be patient another year to allow him to develop "his" players but am hoping for breakthrough results in 2019, especially on the offensive side.

I've said this is two other threads within the past week but... Josh is taking a step forward this year. I just can't see Lynch's stats over his time with Fuente and Cornelsen and not envision the same for JJ.

I hope you're right, but he isn't the same caliber athlete or passer as those two. I like the kid a lot. He's a great competitor. But he's just limited physically. I don't think that means he cannot be effective, or even good. I just think it isn't fair to compare him to those guys.

Is it football season yet?

Agree - he is much more Bryan Randall than Tyrod. But you can win with Randall, that's all that matters.

He's a great competitor. But he's just limited physically.

Am I the only one who thinks cornelson loses his mind on third down? I understand that this thread is about analysing long term trends but I think cornelson himself seriously affects stats like drives stalling. I wonder how his third down philosophy has changed throughout the years because I think he is sooo much better on first and second down.

Honestly? I think it just might be a VT thing. I think 3rd down play selection has been all over the place as long as I can remember watching Hokie football. I especially remember watching Clemson and WV games last season and thinking "what the hell are they doing?" during most 3rd downs.

Random thoughts after reading all the comments:
1) Bush should have played more last year after JJ was banged up.
B) Lest ye forget, Randall was a much better runner than JJ (although I understand the comparison in other ways)
3) I fear JJ will get banged up again; possibly early in the year. Will FU find someone else he can trust to sling the hash?
D) Anything I forgot to mention

"Hamdog is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life"....Brian Carson from the Internet(s)

We don't know what goes on in practice, but the fact that JJ banged up was playing indicates that he was still better than Bush. I firmly believe that Fuente is going to play the best player.

I firmly hope that with a year in the system, Hooker or Willis will be able to step up and get meaningful play time in our early games. I

I have no doubt that was what the coaches thought. However, I can attest from personal observation, that Bush could sling it. I am assuming they had a concern with his accuracy. Having said that, JJ wasn't exactly accurate or his overall play "inspiring" during the 2nd half of the season. PS they claimed AJ was the "Best" athlete on the team. Perhaps they should have played him somewhere.

"Hamdog is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life"....Brian Carson from the Internet(s)

I think it was more his decision making than accuracy. I remember anecdotally that he threw more picks in practice than JJ.

Is it really surprising that a guy who turned the ball over 15 times on 209 combined rushing/passing attempts at his last stop didn't get significantly better over the course of one season? I'd say it's much more likely that Fuente saw the athletic talent but it never gelled than that he just decided not to play him anyways.

Ehhh I have to disagree with #1. I wish we had a #2 that could have taken over as well, but Bush was always a desperate attempt at some depth at best, and simply upperclassman leadership in the QB room at worst. His numbers the year before against JUCO competition were downright bad.

Bush must truly have been awful throwing the ball. If you notice, he ran the ball pretty much every play he was in that wasn't garbage time. We don't really know how he played in practice, but it was clear the coaching staff didn't trust him.

This was an outstanding read. Thank you!