Coaching Upheval Stunts Virginia Tech’s End-of-Season Progress

If you thought last offseason was full of turnover and upheaval, just take a gander at all of the coaching changes that have occurred in the last couple of days.

Justin Hamilton was announced as the program’s new defensive coordinator, replacing the retiring Bud Foster. We’ve known this change was coming since the start of the season, but we didn’t know that almost the entire defensive staff would be different going into next season.

It was announced on Sunday that cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell will not be returning to the staff next season. We found out on Monday that defensive line coach Charley Wiles won’t be returning either, meaning Fuente and Hamilton will have to fill three coaching vacancies. At the moment, Virginia Tech does not have a defensive line coach, a linebackers coach or a cornerbacks coach.

Both Mitchell and Wiles will be missed. Mitchell never seemed to recruit well but his cornerbacks were generally solid. In 2016 and 2017, Mitchell benefitted from experienced veterans like Brandon Facyson, Greg Stroman and Adonis Alexander. The 2018 season was a disaster at cornerback, but both Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller blossomed into high-level players this season. Farley skyrocketed into the “elite” category and even Armani Chatman played well in limited snaps off the bench.

Wiles was better on the trail. He found success in Florida and once Torrian Gray left, Wiles was Tech’s only legitimate presence in the state. Wiles missed on some elite prospects like KJ Henry from North Carolina, but Wiles was one of the better recruiters on the staff. Virginia Tech’s defensive line exceeded expectations this season and newcomers DaShawn Crawford, Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks solidified the middle of the defensive front.

Fuente somewhat addressed the dismissals of these three assistants on Wednesday at the initial Belk Bowl press conference in Charlotte, N.C.

“There’s not three (reasons),” Fuente said. “There’s a hundred. … I’d say recruiting, player development, teaching, scheme, chemistry.”

Neither Wiles and Mitchell were perfect. But it seems like their value grew when Tech decided to promote Hamilton to defensive coordinator. With a green coach at the helm, one would think having knowledgeable position coaches around him would ease the transition. Instead, Hamilton is hiring an entirely new staff.

The change has extended to the other side of the ball. Running backs coach Zohn Burden is also not returning to the staff, which comes as no surprise. The midseason hiring of Jerry Kill truly transformed the running game and the Hokies’ leading back, Deshawn McClease, even told reporters he was conversing with Kill on the sidelines during games.

Look at the difference in rush yards per game before and after Kill was hired…

  • Start of 2019 through Sep. 16, 2019: 148 yards per game
  • After Jerry Kill’s arrival: 179.33 yards per game

Burden was a much better recruiter than he was a coach. Burden spearheaded Virginia Tech’s recruiting efforts in the eastern part of the Commonwealth, particularly in the Tidewater area. Burden was instrumental in Devon Hunter’s commitment and signed multiple players from the “757” in each cycle.

Virginia Tech has already tabbed Adam Lechtenberg as the Hokies’ new running backs coach and on his first day, Lechtenberg landed graduate transfer Khalil Herbert from Kansas. Herbert is no world beater, but he’s averaged over five yards per carry throughout his career.

While Lechtenberg has clearly earned Fuente’s trust, one must not forget that Lechtenberg has not once served as a running backs coach anywhere at the college level. Lechtenberg has worked as a co-offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach at the lower levels of college football, but his duties and responsibilities at Virginia Tech have centered mostly around recruiting and “managing Tech’s roster.”

There are two ways you can assess Virginia Tech’s staffing changes. The positive assessment praises Fuente for rewarding young and successful assistants (Hamilton and Lechtenberg). The negative assessment views dismissals of Mitchell and Wiles as ridding the defense of valuable coaches who have done well in their careers in Blacksburg and have years of experience that the coordinator lacks.

As with the hiring of Hamilton, I am taking the wait-and-see approach with all of these changes. A lot is riding on who is hired on the defensive end. It’s imperative that Virginia Tech replace their outgoing assistants with veteran coaches so that Hamilton is surrounded by experience. Having a defensive staff that is fully green sounds like a recipe for disaster.

We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but it feels like the massive coaching upheaval we’ve witnessed over the last few days has stunted all growth and momentum that Virginia Tech built in the second half of last season. This, combined with a hurtful defeat in Charlottesville, almost makes Virginia Tech’s stretch of winning a distant memory.

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