Justin Fuente’s priority when he was hired as coach at Virginia Tech was to immediately speak to the players he would work with the least.
He was brought to Virginia Tech to revitalize an offense and was tasked with solving the problems at quarterback, appraised as the missing link to restore the Hokies as the elite team of the ACC Coastal Division. But Fuente’s concerns began with the seniors he was inheriting at Virginia Tech.
At Tom Herman’s introductory news conference at Texas, he said how tough it can be to win over the upperclassmen as a new coach. There is sometimes an obstinate refusal to adjust to a foreign staff, and his predecessor had lasted in Austin for only three seasons. Frank Beamer was closing in on 30 seasons in Blacksburg before stepping down at the end of 2015.
Did Beamer, on his way out, say anything to the seniors about being open to a new coach to ameliorate potential pitfalls?
“I didn’t need to,” Beamer said. “You go down through Ken Ekanem and all the seniors, they’re smart, great-character kids. I felt they’d handle it well and would want to work hard and be successful.
“With the personality of another senior class, that might have been necessary.”
Fuente reached out to the seniors individually when he arrived, but he found a group open to his style. It helped that Fuente insisted a retired Beamer come around the program as much as he wanted, but Fuente said the seniors conceded to the changes he planned to implement in training, nutrition and schemes. They answered that the only change they cared about was in the win-loss record.
“He was telling us that he thought it was going to be harder to get the seniors on board, but as far as the senior class goes, I think we were all just eager to get back to work and trust in the guy who wanted to win,” senior fullback Sam Rogers said. “So he got our trust right away.”
When Ekanem, a redshirt senior defensive end, signed in 2012, he joined a program that had won 10 games in eight straight seasons. They had played in four of the last five ACC championship games and won three. However, the Hokies dropped from 11 wins to seven in 2012, and they accumulated a 29-23 record from 2012-15.
Since 1992, only two senior classes under Beamer failed to win a conference championship. This senior class is proud they will have an opportunity against No. 3 Clemson on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC) to close with one. There are 18 academic seniors listed on the Hokies’ two-deep depth chart for Saturday.
“I thought we were going to come in and just be Tech, just be really dominant in the ACC and always be in contention for the ACC championship. My first four years here were kind of disappointing seasons,” Ekanem said. “... The night before the [regular-season finale], the seniors on the defense got to get up and say whatever they wanted about the season, and I just couldn't thank my team and my coaches enough. It's meant so much to me bringing Tech back to the slot where I originally envisioned us at.”
Fuente said he counted on the seniors to be a conduit for his message for the younger players, and he said “they’ve jumped in with both feet.”
“They’ve set a great example from day one.”