CHARLOTTE, N.C. - This time last year, you could see bad things coming for Virginia Tech.
Go back and read what was written from Charlotte. Ponder all those old questions anew. Skim past the hopeful quotes — “We have coach Foster. They’re going to be fine,” then-quarterback Josh Jackson said of the team’s depleted defense — and remember all the facts that suggested the Hokies would be anything but fine.
Frank Beamer used to joke that you could tell what kind of season you just had by the questions you got on the offseason fundraising circuit. His successor, Justin Fuente, views things a little differently.
Sure, he’s gotten his share of questions from fans and boosters. But to him, this has been a good offseason, because the personnel carousel has been much quieter than the last. What’s behind him and his team matters much less than what’s ahead.
He knew what he was facing barreling into 2018 — major losses to the NFL Draft, disciplinary attrition, the prospect of too many young players playing key roles too earlier in their careers. He hadn’t had that kind of challenge since his first season at Memphis, when he took over a 2-10 team.
Even that, though, was easier.
“Taking a team that’s learning how to win and trying to convince them that they can win and they can go do something, that’s not very hard,” Fuente said Thursday at the ACC Kickoff. “But taking a team that you can see the problems, and trying to navigate that part of it and trying to keep the expectations under control and all that, that’s the hard part.”
He’s not complaining. Fuente stressed that multiple times during his 30-minute session with the media: He doesn’t want to come off like he’s copping out or making excuses.
But he provided a little window into his thought process both in 2018 and now. He admitted that he saw what the rest of us did heading into last season, but he couldn’t paint that dreary picture in such a public forum as this. He had to maintain a hopeful tone, as all coaches do.
Now, a year later, Tech is coming off a losing season for the first time since 1992.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Fuente said. “We know that. We can blame it on anything we want. Everybody knows what it is. The bottom line is that doesn’t matter. We had a job to do. We have a level of expectation that we’re supposed to live up to.”
What should give Tech fans hope is that in 2019, Fuente doesn’t have to manufacture reasons to believe. No miracle would be required for the Hokies to win the Coastal Division, where Tech, Virginia and Miami appear equally capable. The defense will be better — likely infinitely better. The offense has an established quarterback and some perimeter weaponry. The conference schedule is favorable.
Fuente also doesn’t want to bury all the potential lessons from 2018. Keeping the bowl streak alive, beating UVA and challenging favored Cincinnati in the Military Bowl with an undermanned squad encouraged him.
“That’s the other side of it,” Fuente said. “Is there anything to be proud of? Yeah. I say that, and my message to the fan base is I know that it’s not good enough. That’s not what I’m saying. Don’t mistake what I’m saying.
“But there are so many great examples of our squad battling through adversity where a lot of people, they might have just cashed it in. You can say whatever you want about the 2018 Hokies, but they didn’t cash it in. They did not. And there’s value in that.”
Bad things could still come for Virginia Tech in 2019. Fuente knows that. But the sense of foreboding that accompanied his trip down Interstate 77 last July for this event wasn’t here this time around.
And that means it’s been a pretty good offseason.