The Virginia Tech football team enjoyed a few days with family and friends before heading to their temporary home away from home in Charlotte for the Belk Bowl.
The players are far removed from their regular-season finale loss to rival Virginia and, according to Fuente, are ready for the next challenge.
“I think our team is anxious to play,” Fuente said at a news conference before the Hokies headed for Charlotte. “It’s still a way’s off, but I think our team really would like to play well. That’s the feeling I get from them. They know we have a bunch of guys coming back next year. They’re excited about that as well.
“So I’m eager to get to the bowl site and really get into the preparation week of playing the game,” the head Hokie said. “Me personally, I’m honored we get to go, but – and this isn’t a complaint – my plate has been so full that I haven’t had a chance to get excited. We’ve had a lot going on. I’m eager to get to the preparation week.”
Tech’s top goal this time of year is to send the seniors out as winners. But the coaches admit that they often use the extra time to work some younger players as well.
In short, this time of year is a balancing act for coaches. For Tech, the 2020 season started shortly after the Virginia loss, especially for the 21 starters projected to return.
“I think, for us right now, with the large number of guys we have coming back, the message is let’s not wait until Jan. 21 to start improving,” Fuente said of the date when the university begins spring semester. “We have this opportunity right now with many, many guys that will be on this team next year. Let’s not waste all this time leading up to when we come back for the spring semester. Let’s start that improvement now. That’s what we’ve been working toward, and I’ve been really pleased with the way we practice, good versus good with an eye toward Kentucky.
“But that’s kind of our talk. We would not be doing our team in 2019 or 2020 any service, we would not be doing them right, if we said we’re just going to wait to get better to go and try to win games. We’re playing this game for next year as well. We just get to do it with a few seniors that are on their last go-round.”
The game also marks the final one for defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who is retiring. No one has invested more into the football program than Foster, but even he is thinking about the program’s future.
“We need to finish for the right reasons, for the seniors, but we’ve always used this game in the past and what we are now – this is about the future,” Foster said. “It’s obviously about sending people off the right way and then it’s about the future. Let’s don’t wait till the middle of January when we come back for reporting date. Let’s start now. Our attention to detail is continuing to improve, and let’s grow and build on what we’ve done this year. But to take another step, we don’t need to wait until the next semester. We need to go do it now.”
Here are some other notes from the news conference:
Sunday’s practice was Foster’s last practice in Blacksburg. The reality that the end is nearing continues to weigh on his mind.
“I’m excited to have one more opportunity with these guys, with the staff and with the players,” Foster said. “It is bittersweet … It’s all kind of starting to come to a head right now. I really haven’t had a lot of time to sit back. I know it’ll hit me hard after the game or maybe in another week or two when there is going to be a void there.”
Foster’s retirement and the dismissals of Brian Mitchell, Zohn Burden and Charley Wiles created some uncertainty as to who would coach in the bowl game, but Fuente and Foster have decided on temporary moves. Adam Lechtenberg will coach the running backs while Foster has assigned the defensive line to graduate assistant Zach Sparber. Pierson Prioleau, the director of player development (defense), will coach the cornerbacks. New hires Darryl Tapp and Tracy Claeys are working and involved in game planning but will not be coaching in the bowl game.
“They’ve been in evaluation mode more than anything,” Foster said. “They’re sitting in our meetings, and I really like some of their input and feedback. One thing that I’m taking from that is they’re great hires. Darryl knows the expectations and traditions here. Coach Claeys is an outstanding coach in his own right. He’s been a coordinator for a long time. He’s been a head coach at a power 5 school. I like his mindset. He’s been in a similar scheme over the years. I think the way we have it set up and the way it’s set up for down the road are very good. I know they have a couple of more hires. It’s going in the right direction for Justin [Hamilton] to go be as good as we need to be on defense.”
Not surprisingly, Fuente’s decision to promote Justin Hamilton to the role of defensive coordinator following Foster’s retirement after the Belk Bowl was met with approval from the Hokies’ longtime assistant coach and defensive coordinator. Foster coached Hamilton, who played several positions, including safety, from 2002-05, then brought him on the staff as a director of player development before moving him into the role of safeties coach after Tyrone Nix’s departure last year.
“When Coach Fuente and I talked about this right after I made the announcement, we threw out some names, and it was early in the season,” Foster said. “He told me to keep my eye on some things and recommend some people. We were in fall camp, and I went down and knocked on Coach Fuente’s door, and said, ‘Hey look, remember when you were ready to be a coordinator, and I look back at myself when I was ready for that opportunity?’ I said, ‘We don’t have to look very far. The guy is right underneath our nose.’
“It was a great opportunity this season for Coach Fuente to evaluate him and see what he’s all about,” Foster said about Hamilotn. “I just had this feeling that he was the right guy just all the way around – from a football IQ, he’s well respected by the players, a great teacher and a great communicator. He’s the total package.”
Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker played well the second half of the season after being inserted into the starting lineup, throwing 11 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in seven starts. Most would expect Hooker to be the starter heading into the 2020 season, but Fuente likes competition, and Hooker knows it. He is approaching the offseason as if he is competing for the job.
“I never feel complacent in anything in life,” Hooker said. “I feel I have to work even harder than before just to increase my game and to better myself and to help me realize that there are things I need to work on.”
So if Fuente opens the quarterback competition during spring practice, would Hooker be okay with that? “I’m ready to battle,” Hooker said.
Bowl practices allow coaches the chance to evaluate younger players in addition to preparing the team for the bowl game. One player who caught Fuente’s eye at Saturday’s practice was Amaré Barno, a linebacker who took a redshirt season this past fall. A junior college transfer, the 6-foot-6, 235-pounder will have two years of eligibility remaining.
“He made two plays today that were pretty crazy,” Fuente said. “He still has a long way to go, but he’s athletic. He’s made some plays that were eye-popping. J.R. Walker [a safety] is another one who continues to improve.”
Foster revealed to the media that he plans to give the lunch pail to Wiles following the Belk Bowl. Wiles spent 24 seasons in Blacksburg, and Foster credited Wiles for being a huge part of the program’s success during that time.
“That’ll be No. 2 that I’ve given away,” Foster said of the lunch pail. “He was just awesome. He told the kids [at a recent meeting] that, in this game and this level, things happen. He’s disappointed and hurt, but he’s not a hater. The biggest thing is, we, as coaches, mentor a lot of people and we give a lot of ourselves to young people for their betterment. Charley came away and said, ‘Hey, I’m a rich person because you guys have touched me.’ Pretty cool. How he handled this thing was with the utmost class, and I wouldn’t expect it any other way. That’s who he is.”
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics