Every year, when the season would end and Andy Dalton would hop in his truck to drive from Cincinnati, where he has developed into a star quarterback for the Bengals, to his home in Texas, he’d make a brief stopover in Memphis.
Dalton’s career has flourished in the NFL, but his success, he said, is owed largely to the lessons learned from his quarterbacks coach at TCU, Justin Fuente, and so each offseason, they made a point to reconnect in Tennessee, where, until this month, Fuente was the head coach of the Memphis Tigers.
“He’s a big reason that I’m the player I am today,” Dalton said. “He was able tot teach me a lot of things, just the style of what we’re doing [in the NFL].”
Dalton is Fuente’s biggest success story. A star at TCU, Dalton started for the Bengals as a rookie, and this year, he has blossomed into one of the NFL’s top QBs. But while Dalton is the biggest name to emerge from Fuente’s classroom, Virginia Tech’s new head coach has a long track record of success in teaching QBs the intricacies of the game.
At a place like Virginia Tech, that’s big news.
For four straight years, the Hokies have churned out stingy defenses and recruited impressive talent at the skill positions, but when it comes to finding a quarterback capable of elevating the team, it has been slim pickings.
Logan Thomas found a home in the NFL, and Michael Brewer won a few big games, but overall since 2012, Virginia Tech ranks 89th in FBS in Total QBR, 100th in completion percentage, 82nd in yards-per-attempt and has the 14th-most interceptions thrown.
Now Fuente is tasked with changing all that, and there may not be a better man for the job.
“It was always a holistic approach,” Missouri Southern head coach Denver Johnson said of Fuente’s style. “Throwing motion, feet — but understanding the game and how to attack defenses, and the intangible parts — leadership and body language — there was no detail that wasn’t important to him, and he really conveyed that to his players.”
Johnson coached Fuente as a player at both Oklahoma and Murray State, and even then, he tabbed his QB as a future star in the coaching ranks. After college, Fuente made a go of it as a professional, playing a few years in arena football before Johnson recruited him to join his staff at Illinois State. It didn’t take long for Fuente to establish himself as a perfect mentor for quarterbacks.
“He’s a natural teacher,” Johnson said. ‘He just connects with kids. He gets it that everybody learns differently. He’s just got a great demeanor and a great accessibility with those guys, and it’s manifested itself in where he is right now.”
From there, Fuente moved to TCU, where he molded Dalton into an NFL starter then turned his attention to Casey Pachall, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound QB with a big arm. Early on, Pachall was overwhelmed by the complex system at TCU, but Fuente refused to let his burgeoning star fall behind.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Pachall said. “He’d meet with me before and after meetings on special things to further my knowledge, just to make sure I was on the same page. He took the time to help me develop as a quarterback.”
As a sophomore in 2011, Pachall stepped into the starting role, throwing 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and completing 67 percent of his passes.
Fuente was hired at Memphis the next season, and he almost immediately transformed the Tigers’ offense. Along the way, he mentored another big-bodied QB into an NFL prospect, with 6-foot-7 Paxton Lynch blossoming this season into a potential first-round draft pick.
Now, Fuente will try to do the same at Virginia Tech, and he’ll have a prime pupil in freshman Dwayne Lawson, whose body type — 6-foot-6, 210 pounds — certainly lends itself to comparisons with Pachall and Lynch. But those comparisons aren’t really the point, Pachall said. Fuente isn’t looking for a specific skill set so much as he’s looking to develop whatever skills his QB has.
“Quarterbacks all have different things that make them special, and Coach Fuente brings that to the top, showcases that and uses it in his offense to help you and the offense thrive,” Pachall said.
Johnson saw that at Illinois State. It didn’t matter the level of athlete Fuente was coaching, he found a way to get the most out of everyone.
The magic was actually pretty simple though, Pachall said. Fuente emphasized always having a plan — in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage, in life.
Dalton remembers talking with Fuente often about their plans. On those trips back through Memphis, the two would discuss their goals, make plans for the future. Virginia Tech, Dalton said, is the type of place Fuente had always wanted to be.
“I’m happy he’s at a good place,” Dalton said, “and I’ll be rooting for Virginia Tech now.”
And the Hokies are happy to have Fuente. At a school searching for its next great quarterback, Fuente is the ideal coach to develop one.
“Whatever that proverbial ‘it’ is,” Johnson said, “Justin has got it in spades.”