CHARLOTTE, N.C. –For the Virginia Tech football team, the 2018 season kicks off Sept. 3.
But for the ACC, the Hokies’ league home, the college football preseason hype machine kicked off Wednesday at The Westin in downtown Charlotte.
Coastal Division programs were on center stage Tuesday, and Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, along with players Josh Jackson and Ricky Walker, spent the better part of four hours answering an array of questions about the upcoming campaign.
They also fielded many questions about the Hokies’ eventful offseason, one that saw Fuente deal with hiring a new assistant coach, player ineligibility, player dismissal, a season-ending injury to a critical junior college recruit, and an academic situation with Jackson that became public, but ultimately was resolved. None of that, though, has dampened Fuente’s enthusiasm about his team and the season.
“I’ve used the word ‘excited’ a lot today,” Fuente said. “Probably overused it. But I’m rejuvenated to get back. Not just because we’ve had things to deal with. We’ve had to deal with some things. We’ve got to own up to those things and talk about them. We talk about them as a team and put all our cards on the table.
“But I’m really excited to coach this young group of eager people. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been before. That doesn’t mean anything about the two previous teams that I’ve had the privilege of coaching at Virginia Tech. It just means we have a unique challenge. We’re certainly not starting from scratch, but we are a youthful team with some huge challenges in front of us, and I can’t wait for us to go at them head on because I think we have a group that’s eager to take those challenges on.”
Fuente and his staff enter year 3 of his tenure having won 19 games in the past two years and extending both Tech’s bowl streak and current 14-game winning streak over rival Virginia. The Hokies went 9-4 last season, with a collection of solid wins over West Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and Pitt.
But Tech enters this season with a lot of question marks, as it attempts to replace seven starters on defense, find a kicker and search for a replacement for its all-time leading receiver. Doing those things this season while extending both the bowl streak and the streak over UVA would further enhance Fuente’s ascending legacy in Blacksburg.
Just don’t mention the “l” word to him.
“I’ve never worried about that,” he said. “I just know that I’m comfortable enough with myself to know that what we’re teaching them on a daily basis and the process that we have in place leads to success. Defining that success, certainly wins and losses is one way to do that, but that’s not what we talk about. We don’t talk about the wins and losses on a daily basis. We talk about doing the right thing and being consistent to do that.
“I like where we’re going. I like where we’re at. I like our developmental model in our program and in all areas of our kids’ lives, from their academic development to their social development, their spiritual development, their athletic development. I like where our recruiting process is at and what we’re bringing in and the type of evaluation tools we’re using. In the long run, it’s going to benefit us, and we’re going to have success.”
Here are some more notes from ACC Kickoff:
The rare underclassman at ACC Kickoff
Most coaches bring seniors to the ACC Kickoff event because of their comfort level with answering questions from media members, but after contemplation of bringing one of the seniors on Tech’s offense, Fuente elected to bring Jackson, a redshirt sophomore, to the event Wednesday.
“Steven Peoples is absolutely deserving – and he would rather stab himself in the eye than do this,” Fuente said. “So I’m saving Steven from having to do this. Yosh Nijman is another senior that is deserving. But those guys, they don’t want to do this, and to be honest with you, I don’t want to put you guys through a whole day with a group of guys that don’t want to do this. They’re certainly not offended, and I don’t think you are either.”
Searching for CBs
Tech’s defense lost cornerbacks Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson and Adonis Alexander off last season’s squad, and junior-college transfer Jeremy Webb is out for this season with an injury. So Tech’s defense needs for a group of young cornerbacks to emerge and play – and play well – quickly. Fuente said that he and coordinator Bud Foster will not change their philosophy of playing man-to-man coverages in certain situations.
“It’s very difficult to keep people from running the ball down your throat if you don’t have enough people in the box,” Fuente said. “Under no circumstances are we going to vacate the box for pass coverage and let people run the ball up and down the field. That’s just not going to happen. So you can’t totally avoid one-on-one situations in the back end.
“I feel really good about what we’ve got in terms of we’ve got some young, long, athletic, tough guys that would like to play. They all told me they wanted to play early, so here’s your chance. The challenge is that it’s not good enough just to play at Virginia Tech. You’ve got to play well. Getting those guys to that level is the challenge as coaches.”
Cannon-balling into the season
Some programs schedule a winnable game to open the season, but the Hokies haven’t been afraid to challenge themselves with a tough opener over the years. This season, Tech agreed to open with a talented Florida State team on the road on Labor Day night in front of a national audience. And the Hokies do so with seven new starters on defense.
“It’s a tremendous challenge, but I love it,” Fuente said. “I think our players will embrace it. They’re excited to bust out a bunch of new guys out there, and we’ll see how it goes. There’s no sense in us just dipping our toe in the shallow end. We might as well cannonball in the deep end, so that’s what we’re going to do.
“Our guys will embrace that challenge. We’ve got to get them up to speed and playing at a high level in a really short amount of time, but we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Getting Nix up to speed
Fuente hired new safeties coach Tyrone Nix in mid-June, and he and Foster have been getting Nix up to speed on the Hokies’ defensive strategies and schemes. Fuente spent part of his time Wednesday explaining his decision to hire Nix to replace Galen Scott. Nix served as a defensive analyst at Texas A&M last season, but has been a defensive coach for more than 25 years, including stints as a coordinator at Southern Miss, South Carolina, and Middle Tennessee State. He also coached a period at Ole Miss with current Tech assistant James Shibest.
“I thought it was important to bring in somebody who has been in the room and had to think like that before,” Fuente said of Nix’s coordinator experience. “That had to make big-picture decisions. That had to make decisions as a coordinator, and Brian [Mitchell] has that, but I thought that was something in addition that we needed. I’ve been in Bud’s position before. I’ve been the coordinator. Having somebody else in there that’s thought about it in those terms is important.
“It wasn’t the best time of year to go hire football coaches. The fact that we’re able to hire Ty when we hired him is remarkable. I had coached against him personally. I brought Bud in and said, ‘There’s a million different ways we can go with this. Tell me what you think of this. Tell me what you think of this.’ Obviously, James [Shibest] knows Ty, so that helped on that end. So then I moved slowly, very slowly, with what we were trying to accomplish.”
Sorting through the new freshman rule
Starting with this upcoming season, the NCAA implemented a new rule allowing freshmen to play in up to four games while still maintaining a redshirt season and not losing a year of eligibility. A majority of coaches endorsed the rule, including Fuente, who continues to think about which freshmen he wants to play this season and about how to best take advantage of the rule.
“I think it’s going to be an ongoing evaluation,” he said. “I just don’t think we’re going to know, certainly not now. Maybe as we approach our first game, we’ll be able to put guys into columns as of what we think is going to happen – maybe ‘This is an [play] early and see. Maybe this is a wait-and-see later.’ That’s kind of what I’m envisioning happening, but one twisted ankle can throw that out the window.
“The bottom line is that the rule is good. It adds more strategy and talk, which I think is a good thing. I just don’t know that anyone can make a blanket statement about what they’re going to do.”