It was a nice idea, but things just aren’t working out.
When Justin Fuente decided to hand the reins of his defense to up-start defensive assistant Justin Hamilton, there was reason for optimism.
Hamilton, a Hokies legend in his own right, showed signs of developing into a superstar coach. His work with defensive backs, specifically safeties, resulted in on-field improvements. Reggie Floyd became a leader and captain at rover, Divine Deablo was groomed to take his place and Chamarri Conner grew into a high-reward player still learning to play at a consistent level.
The players loved Hamilton. He was relatable, honest and tied together Virginia Tech’s past, present and future. For an athletic department facing a tight budget, Hamilton was the best value hire available.
Here’s the issue — the early returns of Hamilton’s defense are insufficient and unacceptable.
Take a look at the data. Virginia Tech ranks 77th in scoring defense and 94th in average yardage allowed. The Hokies are 67th in third-down defense and 101st in plays allowed of 20-plus yards.
The advanced metrics paint the same picture. The Hokies are 54th in DFEI, 63rd in points allowed per drive and 61st in drive yards per play allowed.
Hamilton’s players have regressed almost across the board. At linebacker, Dax Hollifield and Rayshard Ashby are both having substandard seasons, finding themselves out of position regularly and struggling to finish tackles. Brion Murray and Armani Chatman have both regressed after impressive 2019 showings. Tech’s defensive line has been far too up and down, creating tackles for loss while still allowing running backs to break through open gaps for consistent and often large gains.
Through all of the uncertainty of this season, Hamilton’s defense has not provided a steady and calming presence. The unit has failed to produce, which begs the question — is Hamilton the man best suited to lead this defense moving forward?
Had Virginia Tech’s defense put together an average season, I think the answer would be “possibly.” But we’ve reached the point when the answer is “probably not.”
Fuente is under pressure, and rightfully so, to turn Virginia Tech around. His program is underperforming in a multitude of ways and he needs to shake things up while his contract continues to salvage his tenure.
Reassigning Hamilton may be Fuente’s best bet. Hamilton is young, but he isn’t ready to take over a Power 5 defense at this point in his career. Hamilton could go back to working with safeties, a role that fits him more snugly.
Who then takes over as Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator? For the sake of continuity and saving money — the financial aspect of these decisions cannot be overlooked — I’d promote Bill Teerlinck.
The former NFL assistant coach has as much experience as anyone. His coaching experience with the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills makes him uniquely qualified to handle this role. And to top it off, Virginia Tech’s defensive line has by far been the best position group on that side of the football.
Moving Teerlinck to defensive coordinator allows Darryl Tapp to move into the defensive line coach role by himself, giving him an opportunity to take on more responsibility. It gives Teerlinck, the second-most experienced coach on staff, a chance to oversee the unit and possibly make the necessary changes to get this defense off the mat.
Removing Hamilton won’t go over smoothly. Bud Foster endorsed Hamilton’s promotion and Hamilton is close with countless alumni. That doesn’t change the fact that Hamilton’s Hokies are simply not getting the job done. His unit is being outmatched at almost every level. He needs more seasoning. The ACC is not a conference where you learn on the job.
Teerlinck gives this Hokies’ defensive unit their best shot at success moving forward. For Fuente, it may be his best shot as reclaiming his old glory and saving his job.