When Frank Beamer entered the Virginia Tech locker room prior to a 52-10 shellacking of in-state rival Virginia, receiving a standing ovation in turn, another brick in the Hokies’ relatively seamless path from legend to newcomer was set. Under Justin Fuente, who was named ACC Coach of the Year on Tuesday. the Hokies once again sit on the Coastal throne following a four-year hiatus, gearing up as the heavy underdog against third-ranked Clemson in the conference title game.
Fuente did it by following a familiar, though previously absent. blueprint.
Virginia Tech laid the proper groundwork for such a smooth transition. More than any of the four ACC schools undergoing a coaching change — and perhaps more than any program in the country this past offseason — Fuente, who resurrected a paltry Memphis program, stepped into a readymade situation. The program retained longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster to keep the defense humming while top offensive playmakers Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and Travon McMillian returned to the fold. As senior fullback Sam Rogers said, “You have the same foundation there, so it makes the transition easier.”
“Obviously there was a learning curve there. We were using completely different terminology, some different practice methods,” Fuente said earlier this week. “ … The kids wanted to win and were willing to do whatever we asked them to, under no guise of a guarantee. Kind of the way I put it to them is if we do all these things then we at least have a chance. If we don't do these things, then we have no chance.”
Fuente only needed find his quarterback to bring some semblance of balance back to the Hokies’ defense-first approach.
He found his answer in Jerod Evans.
The Trinity Valley Community College transfer, who originally spent time at Air Force before suffering a torn ACL, brought enough spread experience from the JUCO ranks to make him the leading candidate after fall practice. Twelve games and 3,758 total yards later, Evans is one of the most efficient passers nationally (28th in QBR) and he poses enough of a threat to Clemson’s stingy defense to create a highly anticipated quarterback showdown with Deshaun Watson in Orlando. Evans has accounted for 34 total touchdowns and just five interceptions; he’s one of three Power Five quarterbacks to throw five or fewer picks in 350 or more pass attempts this season. In the meantime, he’s helped completely transform a once-dormant attack.
“I think it's Coach Fuente and (offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen) and good QB play,” senior end Ken Ekanem said of the offense’s improvement. “Going against these guys, really pretty uptempo. And then from what I've seen, there's just so many different variations of plays. You've got to cover a lot – a lot of teams now do the RPOs, and we do that as well. That's run-pass option. So I think we just do a really good job of QBs making pre-snap reads and knowing when to pull it and pass it and stuff like that.”
Production from the quarterback position has been a key missing element during Virginia Tech’s four-year Coastal drought.
Beamer’s best ACC teams — and even his Big East teams when rewinding back to the Michael Vick glory days — often featured a quarterback of Evans’ talents, a dual-threat option capable of punishing teams in multiple ways. Vick was the standard. Tyrod Taylor picked up the torch. When Logan Thomas was at his best, he fit the mold. Even Bryan Randall could move. (Sean Glennon is perhaps the lone exception to this rule after helping Virginia Tech win the 2007 ACC Championship.) So after two down years from Thomas and the Michael Brewer era — the former was plagued by turnovers while the latter's numbers were pedestrian at best — the Hokies are back to averaging 35-plus points per game for the first time since 2003. Providing balance for Foster’s defense made all the difference (offensive efficiency per S&P+):
2012: 83rd in scoring, 87th in efficiency 2013: 100th in scoring, 71st in efficiency 2014: 96th in scoring, 85th in efficiency 2015: 53rd in scoring, 74th in efficiency
The Hokies squandered three top-10 defenses over that span, including arguably the top unit in the country in 2013, and they did not land in the final AP rankings once. This time around they did not let Foster’s top-20 group go to waste, rebounding from an embarrassing, turnover-prone loss to Tennessee to take down Coastal challengers North Carolina, Miami and Pittsburgh in October to assume the role of the division's pace car. Despite being upset by Georgia Tech, the Hokies never relinquished that lead position, and now they head south looking to play the conference spoiler — if Clemson loses, the ACC will likely be left out of the College Football Playoff — to reinforce their season-long message: The post-Beamer era is in good hands.
“I’ve been telling all these younger guys, these moments like this don't come around that often,” Ekanem said, “and you never know when the next time you will be in this situation again.”
Fuentes, Evans & Co. would like nothing more than to prove their senior defensive end wrong.