On the heels of State of the Union speech, Virginia Tech head football coach Justin Fuente held a news conference on National Signing Day Part II that turned into a state of the union of sorts on the Virginia Tech football program.
Fuente addressed numerous topics last week during the 24-minute session, including the two additions to the 2020 recruiting class, the importance of next year’s recruiting class, his recent staffing changes, injuries in advance of spring football and his discussions with Baylor about the head coaching job there.
National Signing Day was the main reason for the news conference, and Fuente and his staff announced the two additions. One of them, Raheem Blackshear, transferred to Tech from Rutgers and enrolled at the university for the start of the spring semester. Blackshear played in 27 games (14 starts) for the Scarlet Knights, rushing for 912 yards and six touchdowns, and catching 80 passes for 810 yards and six touchdowns.
Though the staff lacks depth at the receiver spot with the transfers of Damon Hazelton, Phil Patterson and Hezekiah Grimsley, the coaches plan to play the 5-foot-9, 192-pound player from Philadelphia at running back.
Fuente said of Blackshear, “He’s a highly intelligent versatile player. Could have really gone anywhere he wanted and chose to come here and be a part of what we’ve got going on. He will meet in the running back room. He’s a running back that is versatile enough to help us outside. That’s where we’ll start with it, and that’s what we’ve talked with him about. The rest, we’ll have to play by ear.”
Blackshear will need a waiver from the NCAA to play this fall. If he does not receive the waiver, he will still have two years of eligibility remaining.
Tech’s staff did address the receiver position with the signing of Dallan Wright, a 6-1, 170-pounder from Saluda, S.C. Wright caught 87 passes for 1,508 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior, leading his team to a state championship.
“He had a great senior season,” Fuente said. “One of the drawbacks of recruiting, the way it is now, is that it devalues a kid’s senior year, and this is a kid that’s a three-sport athlete – triple jumper, basketball player and football player – who probably as a young person wondered about his identity. Was he going to be a basketball player? He leaned more toward basketball, and then football-wise, he had some other good players with him, but he threw his team on his back on the way to the state championship.He’s an iIncredibly productive and competitive young man who came on our radar throughout his senior year. He’s from a small town, and we fell in love with him.”
Counting the two transfers, Tech’s 2020 signing class was 17 players from nine different states, including three each from Florida and Georgia.
Here are some more takeaways from Wednesday’s news conference:
COACHES WORKED ON 2021 CLASS
Fuente said that he and his staff spent much of January working on the 2021 recruiting class. In fact, the coaches just returned to their offices on Monday. He stated that the 2021 class is critically important to the program mainly because the Hokies lost 17 seniors, including stalwarts like Reyshard Asbhy, DeShawn Crawford, Divine Deablo, Austin Cannon, Jarrod Hewitt and Emmanuel Belmar.
“It’ll be larger in numbers, obviously,” Fuente said of the 2021 class. “I think it’s got a chance to be the most important class in some time at Virginia Tech. Our aim is to have it be an elite class, and we’re off to a great start. We’ve still got lots of work to do. I do think we’re in a great position with people that we’ve been developing relationships with for a long time. So, I’m incredibly optimistic.
“They’re coming along at a time when all of these things [facilities upgrades] are going to be finished,” the head Hokie said. “We jokingly say that they get to be the spoiled class: the new dorm, the new dining facility, the new weight room, the new meeting rooms, and ultimately the refurbished players’ lounge that will occur when we’re done with this stuff. It’s kind of an exciting time for those guys, and that’s not all of it. There’s a lot more to it. I think it has a chance to be pretty special.”
FUENTE FINALIZES STAFF
Two weeks ago, Fuente finalized his staff by naming Ryan Smith the cornerbacks coach. Smith came to Tech after spending a season at James Madison and two seasons at Elon. Smith went to high school at the Blue Ridge School – an hour east of Harrisonburg – and played football at William & Mary before graduating in 2014. Fuente wanted to add someone with in-state ties to his staff, and Smith fit the bill.
“The recruiting ties were important,” Fuente said. “It’s a puzzle. It’s not one size fits all, and you all see this. You think about Justin Hamilton as the defensive coordinator and you have someone alongside of him that’s been there and done that in Tracy Claeys. That’s going to be a great person to lean on for Justin as he goes through this. Then you talk about [Darryl] Tapp and [Bill] Teerlinck and what they can do, and you think about getting another person in here with ties to the region, and that was Ryan.
“That’s what I wanted in that spot,” the head coach said. “It wasn’t the only thing I wanted, and Ryan is here because he’s qualified and a great coach, and I believe he has a chance to be a fantastic coach moving forward, but one of the things I wanted out of that spot was somebody with regional ties. We talked to a bunch of people, not just about Ryan. We went through a rather lengthy interview process and came away convinced that he was the perfect person for this job.”
DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD BESET WITH INJURIES
Smith will have his hands full during spring practice as Fuente revealed that three cornerbacks – Caleb Farley, Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman – would miss most, if not all, of spring practice with injuries. Of those three, only Chatman really has a chance to return to the practice field.
“It leaves it a bit interesting with how we’re going to do drill work,” Fuente said. “I don’t have it figured out. You guys got any suggestions?”
Those injuries leave Jeremy Webb, Brion Murray and Nadir Thompson as the only experienced true cornerbacks on the roster.
FUENTE ADDRESSES BAYLOR TALKS
In mid-January, Fuente had discussions with Baylor University officials about their vacant head coaching position that ultimately went to former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Fuente regretted that the discussions became public, but he reaffirmed his commitment to Virginia Tech and said that he had talked with only two schools during his head coaching career – the Hokies and Baylor.
“I’m incredibly happy with where we’re at. My family is happy. My wife and kids are incredibly happy,” Fuente said. “I’ve had opportunities to talk to a bunch of people along the way. In my eight, going on nine, years, I’ve talked to two schools — Virginia Tech and Baylor. Did I love that it became incredibly public? No, but I understand that part of it? I do. I get it. I had a meeting with our team and told them that. I think we’ve got a great plan here moving forward. We aren’t looking back.
“I’m really excited about what we have and what we’ve built,” Fuente said at the press conference. “I’m more excited than ever. We’ve done everything possible to pay our respects to the people that have done such a wonderful job in this football program in the past, but you look around and see what we’re building, not just bricks and mortar, but as a program and staff-wise, I couldn’t be more excited.
“It’s a little bit of rejuvenation,” the coach said. “It feels like your first year. The plan that we’ve got staffing-wise moving forward, I’m excited about. So that’s how I addressed it with the guys. I had a conversation, and I showed up for work and went to work the next day.”
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics