CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Virginia Tech football program suffered through numerous trials and tribulations during the 2018 season, but head coach Justin Fuente struck a confident and excited tone Thursday afternoon.
Addressing a large media contingent at the 2019 ACC Kickoff media event at Charlotte’s Westin hotel, Fuente was enthusiastic about his 2019 squad, and arguably more importantly, about the future of Virginia Tech football.
“I’ve never felt better about the direction and the purpose that we all have moving forward with this program,” he said. “If there’s one thing I think we do well, it’s evaluate — self-evaluate as coaches, as players in terms of how can we do things differently, how can we do things better, how can we be more efficient in our protocols, [and] what can we do to help our kids play at a higher level.
“This year, like many other years before it, we’ve kind of had an exhaustive search through all those sorts of things. Really kind of enjoyed that process. Maybe included some more input from some of our young people maybe more than we have in the past, which I think has been good, to continue to build and move this program forward.”
With a lineup filled with younger, inexperienced players who weren’t quite ready for major college football action, Tech finished 2018 with a 6-7 record following a 34-31 loss to Cincinnati in the Military Bowl. The season marked the Hokies’ first losing campaign since 1992.
That created a lot of angst among the fan base, including a younger generation that had not witnessed a losing season. On Thursday, Fuente made no excuses, placing the responsibility for the program and its results on himself.
“It wasn’t good enough,” he admitted. “We know that. We can blame it on anything we want. Everyone knows what it is. The bottom line is that doesn’t matter. We have a job to do, and we have a level of expectation that we’re supposed to live up to.
“In the same breath, there were a lot of things to be proud of [after last season]. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a group go through as much and continue to battle as hard as our kids did. Now what are we going to do? Are we going to learn from those experiences? Are we going to continue to draw together and go see how good a group we can actually be? I think that’s where we’re headed, and I like that. But it’s my responsibility, and I understand that. I welcome that.”
There were positives in 2018. The Hokies rallied to beat Virginia and extend their dominance over the Cavaliers to 15 consecutive seasons. They also rallied on a Ryan Willis-led drive to beat North Carolina earlier in the year, and they beat Marshall to extend their streak of bowl appearances to 26 straight campaigns.
“Is there anything to be proud of? Yeah,” Fuente said. “I say that, and my message to the fan base is that I know that’s not good enough. That’s not what I’m saying. Don’t mistake what I’m saying, but there are so many great examples of our squad batting through adversity where, a lot of people, they might have just cashed it in.
“You can say whatever you want about the 2018 Virginia Tech Hokies, but they didn’t cash it in. They did not, and I think there is value in that.”
Now, there are a lot of reasons for optimism heading into this fall. The Hokies feature a more experienced team – 16 starters return, including nine on defense. The roster is deeper, creating more competition (which makes everyone better), and the chemistry appears much improved.
“Across the board, I’m looking forward to seeing our team,” Fuente said.
Tech opens practice in early August.
Here are some more notes from Thursday’s session at ACC Kickoff:
Foster feeling better after knee replacement
Last fall, the Virginia Tech defense suffered one of its toughest seasons during coordinator Bud Foster‘s tenure, and his contract ends after this upcoming season, leaving many to speculate about his future. Rest assured, the head coach wants him around going forward.
“Absolutely,” Fuente said when asked that question Thursday.
Foster spent much of 2018 in pain because of a balky knee and an undisclosed illness forced him to the press box for a couple of games later in the season. He underwent knee replacement surgery following spring practice, but Fuente said Foster is ready to go, as August practices get set to start.
“I see a guy that’s energized and feels a lot better, that’s ready to go pour it all into his kids and this season,” Fuente said. “I think his body feels much better, and he’s dead set on setting marks for improvement this fall.”
Defensive end much younger after recent departures
Two days ago, Virginia Tech announced that three defensive linemen would not be with the team during August practices, including 2018 starter Houshun Gaines, who went through the death of his mother and also suffered a torn ACL during the season last fall. Xavier Burke and Jimmie Taylor both dealt with injuries, too, with Burke ultimately deciding to give up football after graduating in May and Taylor taking a medical disqualification. Fuente left the door open for a possible return for Gaines.
“We’ll be fine,” Fuente said. “I do like the way that some of our young guys have come forward. It would be nice to develop that. TyJuan Garbutt has started to come into his own. Emmanuel Belmar is a bigger, more physical guy for us, but he’s continued to come on, and then we’ll have to have some play from some young guys. We’ll have to have some guys step up at that position to help us out.”
Webb cleared after injury
Jeremy Webb received clearance Wednesday to begin practice after recovering from a second torn Achilles tendon suffered last December. The former junior college standout missed the 2018 season while recovering from a torn Achilles injury suffered in July. Webb’s return adds much-needed depth to the Hokies’ cornerback positions, and he could work himself into a starting role in light of Bryce Watts’ decision to transfer after spring practice.
“I can’t tell you the resiliency that young man has shown,” Fuente said of Webb. “The first time, I believe it was the second day of summer workouts. The next time, it was the day he was to be cleared, if I’m not mistaken. It happened again in a similar activity, just warming up. Not everybody could have handled that. It takes a special person. You don’t ever want your players to have to go through those things, but if there is anybody who can handle it, it’s him.”
Looking for more from the running backs
Finding a replacement for 2018 starting tailback Steven Peoples stands as one of the things that Fuente and his staff need to figure out quickly once August practices ramp up, and perhaps more importantly, finding a way to get more production. The Hokies averaged 174.3 yards rushing per game – a number that ranked ninth in the ACC.
“Deshawn has been productive when he’s been healthy,” Fuente said. “Jalen’s gone through his first offseason [injuries limited him in the past], which is kind of weird, and he’s done a great job mentally, physically and emotionally of preparing for this upcoming season. I’ve been happy with that. Terius [Wheatley] is coming off an injury. He was carving out an injury for us when he got hurt, so we’ll see how he responds to that. Then we’ve got some young guys that we’ll see how they do. Cole [Beck] will be back there doing football full time this fall. Caleb Steward is another one that worked hard in the spring and hopefully finishes up a great summer.
“So, in short, yeah, there is some inquisitiveness from us to see what it looks like when we get out there and see how the young guys contribute and how it all works out.”
Speaking of Beck …
Beck returned to the football team once the track season concluded earlier this summer, and now he hopes to carve a role for himself. He rushed for 4,700 yards at Blacksburg High School and accounted for 81 touchdowns, but Fuente isn’t quite sure where Beck fits in just yet.
“There is some correlation between track and football, just from the speed level, but not a lot – not as much as everybody may think,” Fuente said. “We’ll see. I want Cole to be a contributor. I want him to block a punt and return a kickoff and work on playing tailback. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t have a great feel for how it’s going to look like. He was not just a two-sport athlete last year. He was primarily a track guy, and so we’ll see how the football part goes.”
Fuente excited about Young
Fuente has spent a little bit of time with new men’s basketball coach Mike Young, and he has been impressed. The two resemble each other in that they came to Blacksburg to replace successful coaches.
“I love him,” Fuente said of Young. “I think he’s going to do great things. I don’t know anything about basketball. I enjoy it. I’m like the rest of our football team – I’ve got a whole football team full of guys that think they’re basketball players. I was talking to my girls the other day and I said something about Michael Jordan, and my oldest goes, ‘We know, Dad, the greatest that’s ever played.’ I’m a huge basketball fan. I use it a lot with our team. I think he’s going to do great things. You all know more about his current roster and things like that and what he’s going to do, but I’m excited to be around him some more. I think he’s a great hire by Whit.”
By JIMMY ROBERTSON, For Hokiesports.com