Most Valuable (Ex) Player

With all the talk about when the Hokies will play, have we overlooked the most important storyline heading into 2020?

During a home loss to Duke, Justin Hamilton observes the defense he inherited after the 2019 season. [Mark Umansky]

Advertising is a reflection of culture.

As a creative, your goal is to connect with people. To take little bits of life, find something funny or emotional about it, package it up however you need (in a 30-second TV spot, for instance) and hope it helps people connect to your brand.

But the problem is every creative at every agency is trying to do the same thing for just about every brand and/or product in America. And if one thing dominates our collective attention to an extreme degree, it can impact the ads you see, and make them all feel like they're telling the same story.

In. These. Uncertain. Times. They're four words to talk about a global pandemic without saying "COVID" or "global pandemic" and they gently remind you of the chaos you're trying to escape by watching a rerun of the 2017 Outback Bowl on ESPNU. It's an annoying cliche, and we got sick of hearing it by the third week of March.

But just because it's overused doesn't make it untrue. We have obsessed over the virus, it has dominated our Twitter feeds, our day-to-day interactions, and even the way we talk about sports.

The last two weeks have thrown the Virginia Tech football team into the spotlight. They happened to be involved in each of the ACC's first two COVID-related postponements and now all eyes are on them to see if they can muster up enough guys to make the third time a charm. Instead of answering questions about depth charts or job security, Justin Fuente addressing the media and sounding like this:

Those dead eyes? That chuckle to himself when something's obviously sad-funny, not actually funny? Fuente has never connected with the Virginia Tech fan base more. It's hard to get excited about a season with no true start date, and even tougher when forced to acknowledge the roster limitations that the Hokies may be forced to deal with from the jump.

But let's put those feelings on pause for just a moment, set the pandemic aside and talk a little football. Because while Hokies everywhere have spent the last few weeks fretting about postponements, one storyline has gone a bit under the radar:

Virginia Tech has a new, 38-year-old, first-time defensive coordinator.

In itself, that story is fascinating. Not only did Fuente replace a retiring Bud Foster–the last remaining thread to the Frank Beamer dynasty–but he filled the role by promoting a young coach from within. It's a gutsy decision by a head coach often panned for his conservative nature. And yes, fans can roll their eyes and talk about how the Hokies made the decision for the money (Hamilton's $600K is half of what Barry Odom got at Arkansas), but there is significant precedent for these types of educated gambles.

The obvious and most recent example is Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. The 37-year-old former NFL defensive back came back to his alma mater, spent a year as DB coach before being called up to the big chair–a path nearly identical to Hamilton's. Leonhard's defenses have dominated in Madison, making him a rising star in coaching circles. But examples of come ups like his aren't rare.

Clemson's Tony Elliott went from coaching at South Carolina State and Furman before a few seasons as the Tigers' running backs coach. He's now their OC and is one of the most sought after (and highest paid) assistants on the market.

Will Muschamp jumped from Valdosta State and spent one year as LSU's linebackers coach before Nick Saban gave him the nod to be the DC at 31. Kirby Smart took a three-year apprenticeship under Saban before leading the Alabama defense at 33. Jeremy Pruitt spent two years as an D-1 position coach (again, at Alabama) before making the leap to Florida State defensive coordinator at 39. And hell, in just four years Lincoln Riley went from Texas Tech GA to ECU OC under Ruffin McNeil.

It's just a smattering of examples, but can you see the common thread? A veteran head coach with an eye for talent sees the potential of a young assistant, and instead of letting the guy spread his wings at a Group of Five school, simply gives him a promotion and keeps him in-house.

Though promotion from within seems like a move for programs (literally) balling on a budget, it makes sense that these assistants came up the ranks at places like LSU, Alabama and Clemson. Those places have the ability to grow talent because they have enough money to keep them supported.

Were those now-famous coaches ready to take the reins in their thirties? Of course not. And if you gave each of them a dose of truth serum, they'd say the same thing. That's how promotions work, especially when they come from good bosses. They throw you into a role you may not think you're ready for and then give you the support you need to grow into it.

Lost between the surprise of Hamilton's promotion and the mild disappointment Tech didn't get a bigger name is that Fuente made a big boy decision. Like other coaches at bigger, more powerful institutions, Fuente seemed to recognize one of college football's universal truths–there are few more valuable commodities than a bright, young coordinator.

If you're confident in the ability, a young coordinator on a cheaper salary can alter the trajectory of a program. It gives you money to throw other places (as Fuente did when he beefed up the rest of the defensive staff), it gives players someone they can relate to and can bring a certain level of energy to their side of the ball. And if they succeed, hefty promotions can come without breaking the bank (Leonhard, for instance, got a huge bump after two years of monster defenses, but is still just the 27th highest paid coordinator in the sport.)

But this should all be obvious, because what fan base knows the benefits of promoting a young coordinator more than anyone else in the country?

Virginia Tech Athletics | Dave Knachel

In 1995 Beamer promoted Foster at the ripe age of 36. 25 years later, Virginia Tech fans would say it worked out pretty well. Though it's easy to draw comparisons between the two, Hamilton faces much more pressure than his predecessor did in '95–and it's not because he's taking over for a legend.

Hamilton is not inheriting a vaunted Foster defense. The last dominant Lunch Pail D left Blacksburg with Tremaine Edmunds and Tim Settle in 2017, and the room is now filled with a collection of disparate parts who have seen a few highs (shutting out Georgia Tech and PIttsburgh in back-to-back games!) and a ton of lows (Bryce Perkins! Lynn Bowden! Giving up 600 yards to ODU! The rest of 2018!) But the pressure to build a successful unit still rests on his shoulders. And despite the lack of spring practice and the uncertainty COVID-induced quarantines have wrecked on the roster, there is one thing the new coordinator cannot escape.

His performance will make or break Virginia Tech's season.

Though it's drawn ire over the last four years, the Hokie offense seems ready to take off. Tech averaged 36 points in Hendon Hooker's starts, which would have been 15th most in the country over an entire season. The quarterback's presence opened up the attack, kept opponents honest on play action and dramatically increased their touchdown percentage in the red zone (67% in 2019, up from 50% the year before.)

But Tech's scoring numbers aren't just the result of improved play from under center. They improved as the defense solidified. Though the Hokies' put up more points, they didn't set the world on fire with oodles of yards. They took advantage of opportunistic situations, short fields and momentum shifts.

Just look at Tech's wins under Hooker. Miami turned the ball over on their first four possessions, leading to scoring drives of 48, 23 and 20 yards. A 21-0 lead gifted by the defense was enough to stave off an epic collapse.

The Wake game was tight until the defense forced two Jamie Newman turnovers inside his own 30, turning a tense 3-point lead into a convincing 36-17 win. Caleb Farley ran a score back in a 45-0 route of overwhelmed Georgia Tech. Norell Pollard's scoop-and-score gave the Hokies control of a rainy punt fest vs Pitt.

While the success of Tech's post-September turnaround was credited to the quarterback change, at least half of it was due to improvement on the other side of the ball. And conversely, when they weren't good it was almost impossible for the Hokies to win.

This is the pressure weighing on Hamilton. If he can step in, avoid newcomer mistakes and make his defense level out just a bit, the Hokies could see quite the jump this fall. He doesn't even have to be stellar in his first year, just build incremental improvement and let Tech's strength (aka the offense) do the heavy lifting. But if the D doesn't improve–or worse, experiences the rookie coordinator blues–Tech's delicately stacked house of cards may come tumbling down on the rebuilt staff.

There's a real chance Hamilton could be the turning point in Fuente's tenure in Blacksburg. If they can get both sides of the ball on the same page, Hamilton's career could skyrocket and Fuente could look like a program-building genius for giving him the nod.

But nothing's guaranteed. And for Fuente to have to count on the success of a 38-year-old coach with limited practice reps in the middle of a pandemic?

Uncertain times, indeed.

Comments

I applaud the decision to go with the intelligent up and coming coach that truly wants to be here. Time will tell how successful Justin is, as with any hire. But, too often in sports and most every industry, supervisors sometimes fall into the trap of seeking a candidate that already has experience at the position. This seems like common sense but what it often leads to is retreading talent that wasn't good enough to excel at the previous stop. If you want the best talent, sometimes the best solution is to trust your evaluation and give the most talented person (not most experienced) a chance. Any new job has a growth and transition period; my hope is that the bumps are few for Justin and what we see is the growth of the next great college football coach right here at home.

"If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?"

Excellent article, Brian!

I will. Edit this comment based on the assumption that the downvotes are related to the tone and not the opinion.

This article is very informative and provides insight into our new DC and what we might expect during the coming seasons. Articles like this contribute the excellent journalism that I look forward to when visiting the TKP and why I contribute financially to the site. I didn't understand the point of the previous article.

To be fair to you, I thought your pre-edited comment was funny. Don't let the downvoters get you...well...down.

Thanks.

Good article! You're right! In a year without Covid, Hamilton's first year would be the primary focus.

Easily the biggest storyline with VT football. Bud Foster WAS VT football for the past 20 years. The 15 straight over UVA was largely him dominating the UVA offense- especially the last 5 wins or so. He energized the fans, gave the program an identity and was loyal to a fault to VT. I love JHAM- he was one of my favorite players on some great VT teams- he played RB, WR, Safety and was an ace on special teams- great athlete, great hokie. In today's game, when he was a 3rd string RB, trying to move to WR, he probably would have transferred. JHAM is a fine up and coming coach, but he is not Bud Foster. Not yet. Bud's ability to adapt to different leagues, coach guys like Cody Grimm and Jack Tyler into being great college players, and his scheme keeping up offensive coaches at night is going to be sorely missed. I don't think anyone on here will argue that Frank Beamer is "missed" - well I'd put Bud on that level too. But if we are being honest, in comparison to the top- or so called top ACC teams, VT is short on cash and donations, and Fuente was talking seriously to Baylor. JHAM is the hire Whit COULD make, it's not necessarily the hire he WANTED to make in terms of a proven DC. Fu had one foot out the door and guys like Odom knew that. Hard to hire someone with options under those scenarios. So we hope that a great former hokie filling taking over for a hall of fame level DC in his first coordinators job can get it done with a front 7 that is average at best and lacks depth. Good luck JHAM. I am rooting for you.

Agree with every thing you said except this:

Fu had one foot out the door and guys like Odom knew that. Hard to hire someone with options under those scenarios.

Let's not act like Odom and Ashe turned down VT because they were afraid Fuente would leave. Those guys have resume that will keep them employed for the next decade. Odom is making $1.2M/year at Arkansas. That's twice what our DC is making, and 2/3 of what our entire defensive staff is paid.

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Just saying it doesn't help when the boss is looking aorund

meh, Odom and Fuente are good friends. Odom knows that Fuente is taking him anywhere he goes (unless Odom gets a better job). I doubt this was a point of contention for Odom.

Twitter me

just build incremental improvement and let Tech's strength (aka the offense) do the heavy lifting

What timeline are we in now? When did this happen that our strength is our offense? I can see the argument from the last 2 games we played but I can also see the argument that includes jet sweeps.

If you think the defense was the strength over the last couple of seasons, I would question the amount of alcohol you ingested prior to watching every game.

Regardless of the amount of alcohol you ingested, our defense was better than the offense last year. 39th in SP+ defense and 56th in SP+ offense. Though the SP+ graph provided in the tweet from Bill C tells a story of the boom/bust style of defense we had in 2019, where we were absolutely awful in terms of explosive plays allowed, while simultaneously being solid on the majority of plays. These graphs are great for exploring your offense/defense with more nuance.

This article even explains how in several of our best offensive performances we were capitalizing off short fields given to us by the defense. That symbiotic relationship between the offense and defense is what gave us our best and most exciting performances last season. Unfortunately, last season was also marred by a stretches where the defense and offense seemed totally out of sync. Here's to hoping this year we can see more consistency in that regard moving forward.

Agreed. Fu has improved the offense - in terms of both a million stats and actual results on the field- a "bit" from Leoffler. Not some huge remarkable improvement. We can't run the football consistently from the RB position. We are not great on 3rd down, and we went nearly a season without scoring a 3rd quarter touchdown at home. This is not the Wake Forest game or Sun Bowl- grant you... but it's not a top flight offensive machine either.

You forgot the season we didn't score in the 1st, but the 3rd was fine that season. Which is just bizarre. Or his first year which the 4th quarter was our best.

I agree with DC. We are not light years beyond the offense of the Leoffler days. 2016 gave us a glimpse of that. But we have not been back there. At all.

Really though, just a slight change is what was needed. 14, 15 would have been good years if the offense was just marginally better. Unfortunately, the offensive improvement has concided with a terrible defense in 2018, and closing out last season on a defensive low.

For this year's team, the defense has to step up, and the offense needs continue doing it's job. If the offense can elevate like 2016, then it's less pressure on the defense.

TKPhi Damn Proud
BSME 2009

Reed, diablo (both huge injury questions) Waller and Ashby (size will kill him in evals) are the only NFL prospects right now on defense. None of them are day 1-2 draft prospects either. We have 2 true frosh at Rover. We are in deep trouble in terms of W/L if this offense can't carry the load this year.

I think Tisdale and Conner have NFL talent/skill but have positional issues at the moment given they are both between being the right size/profile for certain positions. It's exceptionally hard to project which college ILB's will end up making it in the NFL outside of the obvious freaks, but there are certain systems, particularly two ILB systems, that might take a flier on someone like Dax. I think he has some of the issues we've seen from Clemson's ILB's with translating to the NFL, same with Ashby.

After that there are few guys who haven't played enough to really know if they have NFL potential like Chatman, JR Walker, etc.

This is exactly where my mind went writing this thing. The whole point of the new staff was to bring life and talent to the offense. Now you've got 4* guys at QB, RB, WR, TE, and along the two-deep of the OL. If you can't carry the load now, things are about to get dire.

I'd argue that RB production was partly due to RB talent and partly due to the O-line. This year we have what looks to be some real RB talent and O-line that has constantly been improving from year to year.

Thanks for writing this piece. It's almost frustrating to see no one talking about this (due to covid).

Not really discussed here, but I do think that Fuente did a great job of assembling a top notch staff given his budget. He addressed every potential weakness:

  • VT doesn't put linemen in the NFL? Let's get a former NFL coach and former NFL player coaching the position.
  • VT isn't recruiting the state well enough? Let's get a DC and 2 assistant who played high school ball in VA.
  • Young/inexperienced coordinator? Let's get a former DC/HC on the staff.
  • Need help reminding recruits that 'this is home'? let's get former players to come home and talk about it first hand.

Fuente had to play moneyball with this staff, and I think he did great given the circumstances. Time will tell if this is true.

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I tend to greatly agree with this idea that we went with a moneyball approach with this staff, and that we took risks to potentially correct past shortcomings on the recruiting trail and/or development. It's very much a low floor/high ceiling approach by Fuente and I think betting on this staff composition will ultimately determine whether he has a long term future here or not.

Actually two former DC's: both Teerlinck (Nevada) and Claeys (Minney) have been DC's before.

But one former p5 DC. {Since g5 coordinators aren't well respected in this forum}

Incredible work here Brian. I think this is one of the best explanations of the symbiotic nature of the offense and defense, and when they were at their best last season.

But Tech's scoring numbers aren't just the result of improved play from under center. They improved as the defense solidified. Though the Hokies' put up more points, they didn't set the world on fire with oodles of yards. They took advantage of opportunistic situations, short fields and momentum shifts.

Just look at Tech's wins under Hooker. Miami turned the ball over on their first four possessions, leading to scoring drives of 48, 23 and 20 yards. A 21-0 lead gifted by the defense was enough to stave off an epic collapse.

The Wake game was tight until the defense forced two Jamie Newman turnovers inside his own 30, turning a tense 3-point lead into a convincing 36-17 win. Caleb Farley ran a score back in a 45-0 route of overwhelmed Georgia Tech. Norell Pollard's scoop-and-score gave the Hokies control of a rainy punt fest vs Pitt.

While the success of Tech's post-September turnaround was credited to the quarterback change, at least half of it was due to improvement on the other side of the ball. And conversely, when they weren't good it was almost impossible for the Hokies to win.

Unfortunately, in other games, such as the UVA game, we saw a microcosm of the opposite scenario.

This is spot on. I'm glad Fuente took this risk, but then also mitigated that risk by shelling out for a LB coach with solid DC experience and an NFL caliber DL coach. Sprinkle in young some local guys that should boost in-state recruiting, and I couldn't be happier with how Fu turned over the defensive staff.

"Go Hokies!" - Thomas Jefferson
@HaydenDubya

I really hope people are patient with J'Ham and co. Installing a new system without the players he needs will mean that there will be some growing pains along the way.

Is coronavirus over yet?

J'Ham

I read this like a name from a Key and Peele sketch

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)..

Enjoyed this article. I always appreciate it when folks consider the other side of the ball when evaluating Defense. Beamer's tough running, ball control offense greatly helped our D. I am rooting for JHam for sure - he's a great Hokie. It's a bummer that he's already starting off this crazy year without our top D player (Farley) and 3 Defense starters (Farley, Garbutt, Hunter) plus key backup Peoples,...plus who knows what other players will not be available each week.
Also, side comment - shouldn't the VT Defense Radar graphic (which I presume was created by ESPN) have the Rank inverted so #1 Rank is the bullseye and #121 Rank is on the edge. I'd prefer to target the bullseye.

HH4455

shouldn't the VT Defense Radar graphic (which I presume was created by ESPN) have the Rank inverted so #1 Rank is the bullseye and #121 Rank is on the edge. I'd prefer to target the bullseye.

It was built by Bill Connelly before he went to ESPN. The #1 rank needs to be on the outside - IIRC, the SP+ defensive rank is defined by the area inside the radar lines.

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Correct, like it or hate it, Bill has poured thousands upon thousands of hours on developing the S&P+. So much so that he has great relationships with coaches who started reaching out to him about the metrics and the big name analytics company employees that advise programs. It was his baby, and glad for him but sad to see it go over to ESPN. SBNation basically allowed him to post almost everything, including copy and paste spreadsheets. Without great subscription or team access a lot of that data was hard to consolidate. He has talked about how as people started to realize value in the stats, and very different interfaces, he had to find new ways to scrape disparate data to keep providing the S&P+. Some may not like it, but he did and does a huge benefit to college football fans.

@hokie_rd

The types of "spider charts" or "radar charts" are common in various types of analytics. You can measure the area within to get a cumulative score of sorts. The more area covered, the better the defense.

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If we are going to have growing pains with the transition of a young coordinator, what better season to have it happen. I do think JHam will take the ball and run with it so to speak though. Sometimes I have wondered if Bud's previous success stunted his adjustments late in his career with stopping running QBs by sticking with what has worked rather than what could work. Purely speculation by me though.

We have familiarity all over the defensive staff but also fresh thoughts, minds and experiences. I am thrilled to see how this staff melds and performs on and off the field.

"I'm too drunk to taste this chicken" - Colonel Sanders via Ricky Bobby

Outstanding article Brian. I don't have a clue what to expect for tomorrow's game, so I'm going to to sit back and watch and try not to be too critical if it goes south. And maybe, I will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. I just have a feeling that this team and coach are very fragile this year due to these Covid circumstances. Let's Go Hokies!!