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Virginia Tech Football: Justin Fuente Works Wonders at Game's Most Important Position

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech Hokies Football

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech Hokies Football

A day after his introduction as Virginia Tech's head coach in late November 2015, Justin Fuente boarded a plane to go visit quarterback recruit Josh Jackson in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The three-star prospect, who is the son of former Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, planned to sign in less than a month, and Fuente wanted to make sure the high-upside quarterback, who'd committed when Hokies staple Frank Beamer was the coach, stayed in the fold.

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Fred was a veteran of those living room visits and had a keen BS detector, but he left the sitdown with a favorable opinion of the newly minted Power 5 coach. When Fuente departed, having made no promises of playing time other than saying that Josh would get his shot, Fred appreciated his genuineness.

Josh had already done his research. Fuente was only 39 at the time but had already mentored the likes of Andy Dalton at TCU and Paxton Lynch at Memphis, cementing his quarterback coaching bona fides.

"You see that, that definitely intrigues you that the guy's coached NFL quarterbacks and that makes you like his system," Josh said, his decision to stick with his Virginia Tech commitment finalized.

More than two years later, Fuente's credentials as a quarterback whisperer have only been further solidified. At what was once an offense-averse Virginia Tech program, Fuente has worked wonders, bringing in Jerod Evans for a record-breaking year in 2016 during which the quarterback set school marks with 4,392 yards of offense and 41 touchdowns accounted for as the Hokies went 10-4 and won the ACC's Coastal Division.

When Evans unexpectedly declared early for the NFL Draft, Jackson stepped in and threw for 2,991 yards, with 20 touchdowns to nine interceptions during a 9-4 season, breaking Michael Vick's Tech freshman passing records along the way.

"We produce," Jackson says. "I think we do well. We throw the ball a lot. We run the ball. He was a quarterback. He can be a good coach. So it's all a really good system around you to help you out and be a better quarterback."

With Jackson only entering his sophomore season and well-regarded quarterbacks like Hendon Hooker and prized 2018 signee Quincy Patterson II in the pipeline, that trend doesn't seem like it'll end anytime soon, certainly as Fuente and loyal offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen get more of their offensive pieces in place at Virginia Tech.

"Brad and I have been fortunate that we've had willing participants," Fuente says. "We had some talent that trusted us to try to put them in the best situation possible. And I think that's kind of the neatest part of what's happened over the years is what we're asking them to do has changed with their skill set, in order for them to be efficient, in order for them to be productive players. And it's looked different in each spot, and that's because that person, that quarterback, has got to be productive to have a chance to have success in today's game."

If Fuente seems to know how to relate to highly regarded quarterbacks, it's because he was one himself back in the day. Raised in Tulsa, he was part of a generation of gunslingers who began airing things out in Oklahoma, a sharp contrast to the option-based offenses so entrenched in the state in the late '80s and early '90s. When the Sooners hired Howard Schnellenberger prior to the 1995 season, bringing the promise of a modern offense that threw the ball around like the early-'80s Miami teams did, Fuente became his prized quarterback signee.

That pairing didn't work out. Schnellenberger was a poor fit in Norman and left after one contentious season with the Sooners. And the Fuente, a pocket passer, was not an ideal for the offensive favored by new coach John Blake. Fuente would transfer to Division I-AA Murray State, where he got a chance to reset, and he went on to set 11 school records in his two years with the Racers.

But his time in Oklahoma as a high schooler and collegian helped shape his approach to coaching quarterbacks, with two coaches in particular offering radically different methods. Bill Blankenship, who'd later coach at Tulsa, was Fuente's high school mentor. His pass-heavy offenses were a perfect fit for the strong-armed but not necessarily mobile quarterback, and his calm and calculating temperament helped fully convince Fuente, who'd previously envisioned playing tight end, to buy in to the quarterback position.

Fuente got a taste on the opposite end of the spectrum at Oklahoma, where his quarterback coach was the late Dick Winder, as old-school an instructor as there was.

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"He was in your tail every time you turned around," Fuente says. "Coach B was as laid back, as calm and as calculated as possible. And coach Winder was as mean and as rough and gruff a guy as you could ever be around. He coached the quarterbacks like they were the defensive linemen. But they got the same admiration from their players."

When Fuente's post-college playing career stalled as a reserve in the Arena League, he got into coaching, starting at Illinois State, where he began as the quarterbacks coach but ascended to offensive coordinator by the time he left, stealing bits of his style from his polar-opposite mentors.

"I'm probably in the middle," he says. "Quite honestly. When I very first started out, I think I tried to be Dick Winder. I realized that I couldn't do that. I had to be myself."

His scheme evolved, too. Fuente was more traditional with his approach back at Illinois State, when many of the spread concepts common today were still considered taboo, even though, in hindsight, he thinks he had athletes at quarterback who could have flourished in a more wide-open attack.

When Winder retired from TCU after the 2006 season, he suggested Gary Patterson hire Fuente. Patterson did, making Fuente his running backs coach when he was 30. It exposed Fuente to new ideas on offense without losing the fundamentals of the pro style he'd always taught before.

"I think that's where it started to develop away from, 'Let's just do this one thing all the time,' into, 'Man, there are a lot of different ways we can try to move the ball,'" Fuente says.

Promoted to quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator in 2009, Fuente had his first big-name protégé in Dalton, a four-year starter who went 34-3 in his final three seasons with the Horned Frogs before becoming a second-round draft pick and NFL mainstay for the Bengals over the last seven years.

Fuente's magic touch with quarterbacks continued after he got his first head-coaching job at a moribund Memphis program in December 2011, when Cornelsen joined him and furthered his spread evolution. His staff plucked a lanky, 6-7 quarterback out of Florida in its first recruiting class whose only other offer was from Florida A&M. Four years later, Paxton Lynch finished up a two-year stretch in which he threw for 6,807 yards and 50 touchdowns and guided the Tigers to back-to-back bowl appearances. The Broncos would take him in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Fuente took the Virginia Tech job in November 2015 and immediately recruited Evans, the No. 1-ranked junior college player that year. Jackson, Hooker and Patterson have all signed with the Hokies since, with Patterson Tech's first Elite 11 quarterback signee since Tyrod Taylor back in 2007.

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"I think we have earned a reputation of letting those guys be productive," Fuente says. "I think kids pay attention to that. Information is accessible in terms of the kids being able to do some research and see how well we've played at that position over the years, over a relatively long, I guess, period of time. So I think it certainly does get their attention. I think they understand and at least are willing to listen because we do have a little bit of a track record."

What's the secret to Fuente's quarterback success? It's no magic trick. It's mostly attention to detail and being in tune with the position. He's seldom pleased, always wanting his quarterbacks to do a little bit more. Evans recalls throwing an impressive touchdown pass and expecting a high five or "atta boy" coming off the field. Fuente gave him a low thumbs-up, the most minimal of encouragement. If you screw up, though, he'll be the first to let you know.

"He's straightforward," Evans says. "He doesn't hide around the corner."

An ability to adapt to different types of quarterbacks has been a trademark. Fuente likes a quarterback who can move, but his system isn't tied to a mobile signal caller. Dalton, who was a 66 percent passer with 27 touchdowns as a senior at TCU, won't be confused with an Olympic sprinter anytime soon, but he ran for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in two years under Fuente's tutelage.

Evans was a dynamic runner, and the Hokies leaned on him as a leading rusher in 2016 for 846 yards and 12 touchdowns. He threw for 29 touchdowns, too.

If there's a common trait among Fuente's quarterbacks, it's a competitive fire. That's not easily ascertained, but Fuente and Co. have a track record of decoding it as well as anyone.

"Obviously there is a level of talent -- height, weight, speed, strength, ability to throw the ball -- that they have to have," Fuente says. "But when you get past all of that, there's a level of competitiveness and ability to compute in real time what's really transpiring that's very difficult to figure out. But if you can ever figure that out, I think you'd have something really special."