Justin Fuente Explains Why He Sees Offseason Losses as "Incredibly Positive" for His Young Team

In an exclusive interview with TKP, the head Hokie discusses how he hopes to answer the biggest questions facing the team following a challenging offseason.

[Mark Umansky]

Justin Fuente was already facing some huge questions after spring practice wrapped up ā€” and that was before he went through the sort of offseason that gives head coaches nightmares.

Between injuries and players getting booted off the team, there are some huge question marks at just about every position on defense that Fuente and Bud Foster will have to answer before heading to Tallahassee in just a few weeks.

It's enough to make the offense look downright experienced in comparison, with Fuente's first returning starter at quarterback since he made the move to Blacksburg and an offensive line stocked with veterans and promising newcomers.

Yet it's not as if that side of the ball is without its own headaches for Fuente to sort through this month.

The position players may have a bit more experience than they did ago, but without Cam Phillips, who will give the offense a spark? And will Josh Jackson maintain his grip on the starting job, following an academic eligibility scare and some grumbling from the fan base after a subpar finish to the 2017 season?

In short, Fuente has just a few weeks to provide some clarity to a very murky picture right now, and it's clear that spring ball did little to settle some of these debates.

In an exclusive interview with The Key Play, that uncertainty was abundantly clear: Fuente included "we'll see" or some variation of the phrase in just about every answer he gave.

But he also expressed confidence that the offseason's attrition would prove to be a boon for the team, rather than a burden, by the time all is said and done.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Key Play: When we last spoke before spring practice, you said you needed to develop running backs who could hit "home run" plays and make the unblocked hat miss. With spring in the rearview, do you feel like you've found that player?

Justin Fuente: I don't know, we'll see! I feel better, I like the development of our guys. Deshawn finished the season up well and continues to get stronger and hopefully that leads to him being more durable.

But I loved his offseason, I loved the way he's trying to take a leadership role on this team, so I feel better about him.

Steven Peoples, we've just got to keep him healthy and I felt good about him when he was in the game. He's got a little different style, but he tends to always fall forward and was really productive when he was in there for us. We just went through such a long part of the season without him.

And then Jalen Holston has had an improved offseason, continues to improve his body, played a little bit as a true freshman and really didn't do much in the spring so i'm really excited to see him back out there and see how he looks.

TKP: Since you do have more experienced running backs returning, including the guys you mentioned, do you expect to run more base plays or continue to heavily feature the quarterback on read options? Could that reduce some of the burden on Josh Jackson in short yardage situations?

JF: We'll have to see. I do hope that we're good enough at tailback and up front that we can hand the ball off and make yards and let Josh do some other things.

But if we need to get Josh involved more or less, we'll just kind of play that by ear. I just hope those guys continue to prove and make it to where we feel like we need to hand them the football.

TKP: Speaking of Josh, it seems like a popular idea out there is that he wore down physically as the season went on, and that explains why he became a lot less efficient by the end of the year. Do you think there's something to that? Or did defenses simply figure out how to defend him better?

JF: I think part of it was people played us a little bit different and we struggled on the outside more.

Cam (Phillips) wasn't as productive, some of the other guys weren't as a productive as the season went along.

I'm not saying Josh was perfect, it's a shared deal, but I think it was a little bit of everything that led to Josh having less efficient numbers later in the year.

TKP: What do you mean by that? Played you differently how?

JF: Like, we played East Carolina, and the entire game they played off and inside and we threw 14 out routes to Cam.

Well, that's the end of that, they played press every snap from there on out, the other teams did.

Those easy throws were gone and we, at times, struggled with that tight coverage, weren't able to win those 50-50 balls, weren't able to throw the ball into smaller windows and that kinda contributed to it, at least.

TKP: With the wide receiver group, what is the biggest area where there needs to be improvement for the next year? And how might Damon Hazelton's skillset address some of those needs?

JF: I hope we play better versus tight coverage and we win more contested balls.

We didn't win nearly enough and we didn't win very many, and hopefully Damon and another year with Eric (Kumah) and Hezekiah (Grimsley) and Sean Savoy can create more separation, can win some more contested throws.

Phil Patterson's up over 200 pounds now, hopefully he can handle the physical toll that it takes now, with the rules the way they are in college football.

TKP: Turning to the defense, your most experienced free safety, rover, and whip all are listed at 220 pounds and up. Has there been a conscious effort for those positions to "bulk up" to be more effective in supporting the run? Are there any concerns about their ability to cover in space at that size?

JF: No, I think the thing that Virginia Tech has been known for is not just defensive back play, but they've always had long defensive backs.

Greg Stroman was kind of the exception to the rule, a little bit shorter guy but a really good player. We've tried to continue to recruit long people and it just so happens that a couple of them are long and big. We haven't tried to change anything, tried to keep it consistently going.

But Devon (Hunter)'s a big kid, and Divine Deablo is a long kid that's done a great job in the weight room, that's gaining a little bit of weight.

We still want to make sure they can run, that's for sure.

TKP: Looking at cornerback, how impactful was loss of Jeremy Webb in the spring? How much would he have played and who will need to step up in absence?

JF: The answer to that is simple: I have no idea.

We recruited a junior college kid because we needed somebody a little bit older. We have some really good young players. But I don't know how far along he was going to be, he was here for one day.

He did the running workout and then next day he was warming up and tore his Achilles. So I don't know how much he was gonna play or how much he wasn't gonna play, but the bottom line is he's not gonna be able to play and we've got to get those other guys ready to go.

TKP: You're similarly inexperienced at linebacker, but you've got one very notable reinforcement coming in with freshman Dax Hollifield. How much do you see him working into the mix? Could he push for a starting spot right away?

JF: We'll see how it all works out, I'd certainly say he's got a chance to play. He's got nobody in front of him that's really played meaningful reps.

Those jobs will be open and we'll evaluate them and see how they go. I'd say this that, all of those guys have done a great job this summer, Dax in his time here, and Rayshard (Ashby).

The rest of those guys have had really productive summers, but it's certainly open. It's certainly an open competition.

TKP: You have more entrenched starters at defensive tackle, but the rest of the two-deep is a little murkier, especially as you lose Cam Goode. Who will have to step up as you look for a fifth guy there?

JF: We'll have to see. Jarrod Hewitt has had a fantastic summer, Xavier Burke continues to improve and who the fifth guy is, I'm not sure.

We'll have to look at it hard and see who's going to compete for that spot and who's going to play in that spot, if we need to move somebody or if we've got somebody currently who can fill that role. As of right now, you've got those for guys, including Vinny (Mihota) and Ricky (Walker) as the starters, and working to find a fifth guy.

TKP: Overall, it seems like it's been a challenging offseason, to say the least, with all the players you lost. How have those losses impacted impacted the locker room? How has it changed your relationship with the rest of team?

JF: I think it's been incredibly positive. We've used each one as a learning, teaching lesson.

I certainly don't have my head in the sand, I know that we've lost some guys that have played some reps for us, but our kids understand why, and what's going on and we're honest and up front with them.

I think our attitude and our work ethic and our discipline level has increased, and so I've been incredibly pleased with this young group. The seniors we now have on our team are fantastic examples of what we should be, and I think our young guys know that.

Comments

Another great interview on TKP.

Wet stuff on the red stuff.

Join us in the Key Players Club

apparently Joe liked your first comment more than mine

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)..

I'm trying to keep a level head with realistic expectations, but articles like this are getting me amped up. In FuMan and Bud, we trust!

The positivity and hype train have increased my expectations by a single win this season, this happens every year.

Damn, didn't know 16-(-1) was even possible.

Same. I started August with the mindset that we're going to win 7-8. I'm currently sitting at 12. lol. I'm too pumped and I'm not thinking straight.

There is a lot to unfold as the season gets underway. Starting with Florida State, will be an immediate challenge, but not a dagger if we lose. (I am in no way conceding the game!) As long as we finish ahead of UVA ...AND stomp UVA! We are trusting in FuMan and Bud!

The seniors we now have on our team are fantastic examples of what we should be, and I think our young guys know that.

I think this is probably the big quote out of this interview.

The Poster Formerly Known As The Spirit Of Bernard Basham

Fuente talks a lot of coach speak, but he also has a tendency to make very revealing statements without sounding like he said much at all. This speaks volumes to me, and hopefully means the locker room is in a good place.

More than the loss of the players, an offseason like this one can effect the rest of the team if the coaches let it. Sounds like they have it straight.


...he also has a tendency to make very revealing statements without sounding like he said much at all.

"I just hope those guys...make it to where we feel like we need to hand them the football."

Are you saying it's coach speak or that it's revealing? I feel like it's in the middle. He's just saying he can hopes he can find a back that makes him feel like he would be dumb NOT to give them the ball in short yardage situations.

The latter. It's a total criticism/challenge to the backs...play up to where they should and they'll get the ball.

This is how VT rose. All players, all phases of the game, working hard and playing 60 full minutes of football. I think discipline started slipping as we recruited more "stars" and that hasn't always worked in our favor. The way Boise St. won so many games was through hard work and discipline. Tech will eventually start getting higher rated players but the culture needs to be in place to make sure we have a full team playing a full game.

Come on guys....we can do this!

via GIPHY

JP

"We'll see" is the new "Get after ya".

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

Really thorough, nice job Alex.

Two things make me really optimistic about this interview.

First, Fuente's comments regarding the team's offensive struggles in the second half of last season make me excited to see what this offense will be when he has the right balance of "his guys" ready to play. He acknowledges we really needed to be better on the outside last year. From what I can tell, the coaching staff seems to be doing a great job of improving that position both in recruiting and in player development.

Fuente's comments about our running back development also have be really optimistic about the future. I get the sense that he knows how his running backs need to develop and he knows some ways to develop them. He said he feels better about McLease because he's more durable and he's becoming a better leader, and he says Holston improved his body this offseason. Obviously there is a level of talent that you can't improve with development but have to do with better recruiting, but it seems that one of Fuente's strengths is that he knows how to squeeze the most out of every player he has by developing the things that are developable.

Great job Alex!

I do think we will see the team experience some growing pains this season, and because of that our record may not reflect a positive step forward. However, I'm really hopeful (with the exception of the two DT spots) that this team is going to be really good in 2019 & 2020!

Is it football season yet?

I appreciate all the support, and I appreciate all the hate I am getting. I will continue to work as hard as I can to be the best I can be and bring this team a championship. Go Hokies šŸ” - Josh Jackson

Woah there, not so fast. Curb your enthusiasm, Fud.

If you're reading the above post and thinking, "is this guy serious?!?," you can safely assume I'm not.

This is exactly how I feel about this season. Hiding the excitement to just have football back, I have no clue what these young men will do. Regardless, I'm ready.

Fuente is generally pretty cryptic, but I don't mind that. We're all on a need to know basis, (and we don't need to know.)

But invariably, he does give some insight that reveals that he understands the big picture better than all of us, which of course should be the case.

I like how he doesn't bite on the "Josh was just tired at the end of the season", but points out that the numbers reflect more pressure on Josh when other teams picked up on the fact that the offensive options were limited, and focused their defenses accordingly.

This interview does show a lot of confidence in this young team. I'm looking forward to September.

"Well, that's the end of that, they played press every snap from there on out, the other teams did.

Those easy throws were gone and we, at times, struggled with that tight coverage, weren't able to win those 50-50 balls, weren't able to throw the ball into smaller windows and that kinda contributed to it, at least."

If the quick underneath stuff was taken away, it would also imply we had to rely on slower developing routes. Combo that with the Nijman injuries and the O line struggles, and it is easy to see why we got the offensive woes we got. Tells me that a really solid O line and more physical receivers this year should make JJ a MUCH better QB. I guess we shall see shortly. . ..

not only that, but it was well documented that we didn't have a deep threat to blow by press coverage. Teams just had to press up and didn't even have to stack the box against a run threat so LBs could drop back into middle coverage for all the slants.

Come to Blacksburg and see what the Hokie Pokie is really all about

^Probably more this. Yeah it helps to have a good pass protecting oline, but we didn't have any deep threats and we didn't have any running threat, so good defenses could just sit all of their guys in the middle area of the field and know we couldn't do enough to win the game.

And yet somehow, someway, against all odds, we managed to eke out a subpar, mediocre 9 win regular season. Damn, I hope Fu fixes that soon.

Reel men fish on Wednesdays

I feel like you're being snarky... am I really wrong to suggest we leaned on our defense a lot last year? I'm not even saying the offense was bad, but we had weaknesses that clearly got exposed at times.

Edit: I would call a 9 win season above average, slightly better than mediocre. Just my opinion: when you figure we schedule 3 cupcake non-conference games, and expect to split the other 9 regular season games against other P5 teams, the expected result should be 7.5 regular season wins if you're an average P5 team (higher if you want to add offseason games). So we slightly overperformed that benchmark.

Snarky? Moi?

Reel men fish on Wednesdays

The Poster Formerly Known As The Spirit Of Bernard Basham

Sounds like Burke and Hewitt are the firm second-string DTs.

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

Laying down the law on opposing QBs since 2018.

877-SACK-NOW

Never Forget #1 Overall Seed UVA 54, #64 UMBC 74

This made me laugh and sing the tune yet again. Legging you.

Reel men fish on Wednesdays

šŸŽµYou have a quarterback in the pocket and you need him sacked now. šŸŽµ

One thing i'm keen on following / understanding this year with our team is how many "boneheaded" mistakes we make. With the exception of perhaps 2004, we seem to keep shooting ourselves in the foot against opponents we're supposed to beat, whereas excellent teams like Bama and Clemson somehow coach their team to not only dominate their opponents but don't let them get back into the game with stupid mistakes. Look at how we lost to UT when we were up. Or Georgia in 2006. Or Kansas 2007.

Yes I know we beat WVU and we have decimated both ECU and UNC (games where we should dominate and do dominate), but I argue those two schools are not up to our level of competition. I want to go against a blue blood where we dominate and don't screw up. I'm hoping that'll be more visible in the near future.

I see Fuente DNA as different from Beamer DNA in this regard.

I'd point to the Notre Dame game and the Arkansas games where VT fell FAR behind what I would call "parity teams" and then came back for the win.

Yes, VT should have won the Tennessee game, but I'm not seeing that one game as any kind of trend.

Fair, but we also shit the bed against GT. Twice.

And were out-classed by Miami this past year.

I want to see us do better this year and consistently so.

Miami last year was a good football team. That's going to continue to be a tough win. You beat them, you look pretty good.

GT, on the other hand, is the slow and steady tortoise. Time of possession is a running joke, but GT is one team that has made that their mantra and it's how they win games.

The key to beating GT is showing up with an offense. I know VT has done it primarily with defense before, but that's ALWAYS a crapshoot. VT is not going to fool Paul Johnson. I think the direction VT is going with offense will eventually pay off against GT. Start beating them by putting points on the board and don't look back.

Fair, but we also shit the bed against GT. Twice.

I see this as an annoying bit of DNA that unfortunately survived the transition. Someone like Pitt, BC, ECU, 'cuse, or GT always seems to trip us up. I agree with you that I want to see Fuente stamp it out of existence.

The good news is that Fuente doesn't have Beamer's reluctance to RUTS. If only we could get him to hate chinballs as much as he clearly hates the hat...

"Those who jump into the void owe no explanation to those who stand and watch."
--unknown

Yes. so much of this. it's not just grinding out wins, but learning to step on the throat of a team when they're down. Got a 17 point lead midway through the second quarter? Let's make it 24 by half.

Chem PhD '16

Let's look at every team as we look at UNC. We don't just want to win. We want to send a message.

I feel like Fuente has been much, much better at this than Beamer was his last 5 years or so. The score doesn't necessarily reflect that way all the time but I rarely feel like Fuente is being unnecessarily conservative with a lead the way I always felt Beamer was in his twilight years.

Exactly. Beamer tended to "protect the lead" against good teams. Led to a lot of nail biters and losses. Proved to me that playing not to lose doesn't work, and added lots of money to the economy in the form of heartburn medications and alcohol.

Sometime I felt Coach Beamer would play to not lose, rather than playing to win. That always upset me.

"Our job as coaches is to influence young people's lives for the better in terms of fundamental skills, work ethic, and doing the right thing. Every now and again, a player actually has that effect on the coaching staff." Justin Fuente on Sam Rogers

You also can't really compare us to Bama and Clemson in terms of us playing a blue blood. They dominate other blue bloods and big programs because they are the bluest bloods there are. They dominate good teams, but those teams are still far below them just like we have dominated teams that are solid but still below us.

However, I am of the unpopular group that believes we don't show up on the big stage enough so I kind of agree with you at the same time. I have proved it in other threads by showing other teams like Auburn and WVU who since 2000 have a much better record against the Top 10 with about the same caliber teams as we did over those years so I don't want to get into it again here. I hope that can change with Fuente and the rise in recruiting.

I think with time this will change. I've been rewatching last year's games and I will say that even underwhelming as JJ was at times, the offense still felt like a threat to score from anywhere on the field. That's something I'd certainly not say 3 years ago. As Fu gets better talent on O I expect him to really get into that Doug Pederson don't-let-up mindset.

21st century QBs Undefeated vs UVA:
MV7, MV5, LT3, Jerod Evans, Michael Brewer, Tyrod Taylor, Sean Glennon, and Grant Noel. That's right, UVA. You couldn't beat Grant Noel.

im not sure how you come to this conclusion.

Alabama lost to texas A&m in 2012 ole miss in both 2014 & 2015.
Clemson lost to GT in 2014 pitt in 2016 Syracuse last year
ohio st 2014 lost to us, 2016 lost to penn st, 2017 lost to Iowa
OU sooners lost in 2015 to texas, 2016 lost to Houston, 2017 lost to Iowa st.

this is just a sample of 4 top elite teams losses that "on paper" should have been wins for these teams. 1st off we are NOT an elite team like these teams right now so sure its expected that we have more losses to teams we should beat than they do if we didn't we would be considered elite too. even excellent teams have breakdowns where they shoot themselves in the foot. these teams I mentioned above were ranked above and more talented than the teams they lost to in each of these instances. say what you want but that Kansas team was ranked #8 in the country when we lost to them. we just don't respect them because they're Kansas. (we were ranked #5) and the Tennessee team was ranked #17 and we were unranked. yeah we shot ourselves in the foot in those games but we were the underdog why would you expect us to dominate those opponents outside of wearing hokie glasses?

#Bapn ain't EZ

Wanna win put boobie in! Let boobie spin coach!

Great points you bring up. But to counter, Bama still makes it to the CFB. Clemson too. Ohio State as well (but there's certainly a lot more that goes into that too).

Bama has gone undefeated several times, as has Ohio state, and I think Clemson too. I'd argue they all are more consistent against the big boys whereas we haven't been at all, and even against mediocre opponents we historically haven't done well.

Perhaps it's the perception in public? Perhaps it's something else? I can't put a finger on it either, but at least being a fan of the Hokies for awhile I can tell you I'm not confident heading into big games as much as I would be if I were a Bama, OSU, or Texas.

I think that you are comparing what you would be feeling as a fan of a CFB playoff contender to what a Hokie fan feels. That isn't a fair comparison. I would rather compare how we feel to how a similar program might feel. Maybe OK State, for example. I imagine that they are not incredibly confident having to play Oklahoma every year. I know that our record against top 10 teams is pretty sub-par, but as perception goes, its pretty easy to err and compare yourself with someone a step higher than someone on your level.

Honestly another good comparison is Auburn. I feel like our team is in a somewhat similar place to them over the last 3 years in terms of record and perception. The underdog in a conference but still a good (top 25 is) team. I imagine their confidence level against Bama is pretty low, even with some of the wins they have.

Get Angry, Bud!

That missing "thing?" $$$

I certainly don't have my head in the sand, I know that we've lost some guys that have played some reps for us, but our kids understand why, and what's going on and we're honest and up front with them.

I so appreciate this.

Chem PhD '16

My favorite line from the interview. I don't need to know the kids' private business. but the other players on the team need to know what's going on. If they know, and they buy in, I don't want them talking about it outside the locker room.

"Our job as coaches is to influence young people's lives for the better in terms of fundamental skills, work ethic, and doing the right thing. Every now and again, a player actually has that effect on the coaching staff." Justin Fuente on Sam Rogers

Great Wednesday morning read. Goodwork Alex. We all appreciate it.

I'm so ready for this season to begin.

You really get a sense of the culture Fuente is building here... no nonsense, honest, and resilient.

For those "Bar Rescue" fans... it reminds me of one of the greatest Jon Taffer lines imo.... "I don't embrace excuses. I embrace solutions."

Bleeding burnt orange and chicago maroon

This is TKP...so when in Rome...

"We've tried to continue to recruit long people and it just so happens that a couple of them are long and big."

It's been said in this thread, but the statement that I took away from this UH-mazing article is the following:

I certainly don't have my head in the sand, I know that we've lost some guys that have played some reps for us, but our kids understand why, and what's going on and we're honest and up front with them.

For me that is what sets this staff apart from others. I feel like this screams: put yourself above the team, you're off the team, period! I love that approach, and I love that these kids are under leadership like that. I love that they get to see errors and self-correct accordingly. Don't get it twisted I hate that some players are making poor choices, but that's the life of a 18-22 year old. Learning from your own mistakes and the mistakes of others. I feel like this team is so close with one another after all the attrition, and after how upfront and transparent the staff has been with them.

We are all error prone in life, but it's what you do in response to those errors that counts. Those can be team building moments for a group of guys. I don't know if that will translate to wins, but it'll surely translate to a firm foundation for this program, and I hope Coach Fu is here to see the plan through till the end. -Go Gobblers

#BeamerToFu #MaulUVA

via GIPHY

"...I'm getting a little tired of hearing how good everybody else is..." -Coach Fu [This week: 1-0]

That gif is gold. Someone needs to edit it to include all coaches and/or mascots for teams we play this upcoming season.

Or just switch CFB with Bud and the Hokie bird face with a lunch pail.

Great article. I'm planning on re-upping my TKPC membership when budget will allow.

21st century QBs Undefeated vs UVA:
MV7, MV5, LT3, Jerod Evans, Michael Brewer, Tyrod Taylor, Sean Glennon, and Grant Noel. That's right, UVA. You couldn't beat Grant Noel.

JF: ... Phil Patterson's up over 200 pounds now...

Sooo... tight end?

nah, just a WR that can bring the pain on blocks. Saying that out loud just gave me chills

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)..

Counter with...
Marcus Davis
6'3 233

Fugazy

Sooo... tight end?

And from there to QB?

The Poster Formerly Known As The Spirit Of Bernard Basham

Then left tackle!