On a chilly morning at the Beamer-Lawson Indoor Practice Facility, Chamarri Conner dropped back into coverage during a pass skeleton drill (7-on-7) and knocked away a pass.
His teammates congratulated him on the play, and his new position coach joined in the fun, too, running onto the field and celebrating Conner’s break-up with sort of a half chest bump.
That was an example of the excitement surrounding the football program, as it started spring practice with the first of 15 sessions Wednesday morning. The players exhibited an energy that was reciprocated by the coaching staff, none more so than by Justin Hamilton.
The former Virginia Tech player was coaching in his first practice as an assistant coach at his alma mater. He came aboard last season as the director of player personnel for defense, and then head coach Justin Fuente promoted him in mid-February to the assistant coach for safeties and rovers after Tyrone Nix resigned to take a position at Ole Miss.
For sure, the 36-year-old Hamilton – who still looks like he could play – shared in the excitement of the day.
“It was awesome,” Hamilton said following practice. “It took me back to my rookie year in Cleveland to [head coach] Romeo Crennel saying, ‘If you think this is a dream come true, the door is going to close on you faster than it opened.’ It [coaching at Virginia Tech] was a dream come true, but my first thought was, ‘Let’s get them better.’ Once we kicked it off, it’s let’s go get better.”
As the director of player personnel for defense last season, Hamilton helped with game planning. He sat with defensive coordinator Bud Foster and the other assistants in the defense meeting room, going over strategies, and he helped in meetings with the defensive backs, offering his wisdom garnered from his days both at Tech and the NFL.
But NCAA rules limit that position in terms of on-field coaching. During practices, he mostly watched and offered the occasional pointer or two when asked.
Now, he doesn’t have to worry about such restrictions.
“You’re responsible for how they play now,” Hamilton said, laughing. “Last year, you can do as much as you could within the rules, but you’re really not responsible for how they play.
“I thought today was a really good start, but until we experience some adversity … I say to everyone that asks me, ‘It’s all good until we give up a deep ball. It’s all good until we miss a tackle.’ It’s all good until we go through adversity, and I’ve told them [his players] that.”
Hamilton certainly knows how to persevere over adversity. He grew up in Clintwood, Virginia, a small town of roughly 1,000 people in Virginia’s coal regions near the Kentucky border. His mom, Beth, is a saintly woman who works as a social worker, and she raised him, with help from her family. Justin never met his father, who passed away several years ago.
Hamilton went on to gridiron glory as a tailback at Clintwood and ultimately signed with Virginia Tech in 2001. He played three different positions at Tech – tailback, receiver and safety, which he played his senior season in 2005.
A seventh-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 2006 NFL Draft, Hamilton spent parts of a couple of seasons in the NFL. After a tryout with Jacksonville in 2010, he realized he needed to get on with the next phase of his life – and he started working at UVA-Wise, a small Division II school in Wise, Virginia, not far from his hometown.
“I got a call from the defensive coordinator at Clintwood who was a brother-in-law to the AD at UVA-Wise,” Hamilton said. “He said, ‘Do you want a job in strength and conditioning? The hours suck, the pay sucks, and the job isn’t very good, but it’s a job in coaching.’ I talked to my now-wife, and then said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’
“I knew football was over, and I knew I couldn’t sit around doing nothing. I knew that this [football] was what I loved. I just wasn’t sure how to put myself back in it.”
He worked his way onto the staff at UVA-Wise, where he coached for four seasons, and then spent four seasons as an assistant coach at VMI, serving as a linebackers coach and special teams coordinator.
Last year, Fuente – at the behest of Foster – brought Hamilton back to Blacksburg in that director of player personnel role.
“I think Justin’s a future star in this business,” Foster said. “He’s very personable, very knowledgeable. The kids have tremendous respect for him. They know who he is and the kind of player he was here and how unselfish he was here … I think he’s a big-time addition for us.”
Hamilton certainly starts out in a good situation. Returning starters Reggie Floyd, Divine Deablo and Khalil Ladler return for the upcoming season, along with Tyree Rodgers, who played extensively last season.
Hamilton, maybe more than anyone else, wants to get Tech’s defense back on track after a difficult 2018 campaign.
The process to doing that started last week.
“I truly believe in my heart that we’re going to say that we learned and grew so much because of how we experienced things last year,” Hamilton said. “The guys now have tangible evidence that this stuff doesn’t just happen. Before you, the people that made it happen, they made it happen. There is a level and a standard to uphold, and it’s not what’s comfortable. It’s what the game and what our Virginia Tech standard demands.
“That’s first, and we’ve got to educate them on that. We’ve got to drill that in them every day, but I’m excited. I believe we have the pieces that understand that and are committed to bringing that back.”
Here are some other notes from Fuente, who met with the media after the first spring practice:
- Fuente hopes to get Aiden Brown back soon and work him into the mix at defensive tackle – arguably the position of greatest concern to him and the staff. Brown signed with Tech as an offensive lineman, but the 300-pound redshirt sophomore played defensive tackle in high school and will get a look there to see if he can help.
“He’s been dealing with a foot issue for a while, and he hasn’t gotten a lot of consistent work there, so getting him back is going to be big for his development,” Fuente said.
- Zachariah Hoyt was working with the first team at center, as the Hokies look to replace Kyle Chung. Fuente hopes to get Brock Hoffman, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, eligible for the upcoming season and into the mix at that spot as well. Hoffman has appealed to the NCAA for a waiver.
“We have a transfer [Hoffman] that will be coming in as an interior offensive lineman,” Fuente said. “We don’t know if he will be eligible or not, and a couple of freshmen coming in this year. We will see how it goes at center. I think Brock having the chance, if he is eligible this year to compete for the center position, is certainly on the table, I would say.”
- Fuente expects to see a major jump in development for redshirt sophomore ends Zion Debose, TyJuan Garbutt and Nathan Proctor. They all enjoyed a great winter in the strength and conditioning program, and they should be more familiar with all that the coaches ask of the defensive ends in Foster’s scheme.
“There are so many new things and techniques those guys have to feel comfortable with, not just taking on blocks, but you play read plays and those sorts of things,” Fuente said. “It takes some time to get comfortable with what they are asked to do because they are asked to do more than they use to be. It certainly is time and they have done a good job this winter and have been encouraging, and now it is time for them to go put it on the field.”
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics