BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech took a different approach with the 2020 signing class when it came to recruiting defensive ends and running backs.
The Hokies signed four players at both positions on early signing day in a class of only 15 student-athletes.
Fuente made it clear that his goal was to bolster production at the spots while looking to reshape the group (literally) for the future.
Here’s a look at what he meant…
Virginia Tech signed seven defensive ends from 2016 to 2019 and only one of them was taller than 6-foot-2 (Jaevon Becton).
The four defensive ends the Hokies signed on Wednesday are all 6-foot-3 or taller with Derrell Bailey, a three-star defensive end out of Tennessee, towering over the pack at 6-foot-6. Bailey, who plans on enrolling early, is almost half a foot taller than most of the Hokies current defensive line.
Those measurements aren’t some coincidence.
“I do think relative speed and relative length is important and we have made a concerted effort to get longer,” Fuente said. “We have really I guess been long in the defensive secondary and maybe not as long up front…since I’ve been here, that’s what we’ve looked like. So we just made a concerted effort to get longer up front as we move forward.”
Fuente wants his defensive ends to take up more space on the edge and that extra arm length helps defenders shed blocks.
“When you are trying to keep people off of you, offensive players want those guys in there tight when they’re blocking them and defensive players want them far away,” Fuente said. “That’s oversimplifying it, but that’s part of it.”
That size doesn’t automatically translate to success, but Fuente hopes after a year or two in the lifting program the team’s 2020 signees will have the physical tools that “in the long run lead to an opportunity for some more productive play.”
Tech put more pressure on the quarterback this season, but that had more to do with defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s blitz packages than the production from the edge rushers. The Hokies’ had 37 sacks (ranked No. 16 in FBS out of 130 teams), but the defensive ends combined for eight of them.
Emmanuel Belmar led the group with four sacks.
Tech made a number of changes during the season to get more consistency out of the running game and that philosophy has spilled over to the recruiting trail. The Hokies are averaging 3.89 yards per carry this season going into the Belk Bowl. It would be the second time in four years the team has averaged less than four yards per carry.
“We did feel at running back we needed to get immediate help to go along with the rest of our squad,” Fuente said. “I think we did that and also planned for the long term.”
Fuente wasn’t happy with the lack of size in the backfield all season, which is why the Hokies used Dalton Keene as a running back for extended stretches in the second half of the regular season. Keene was especially important in pass block situations because of his size.
Tech didn’t sign any running backs that match Keene’s 6-foot-4, 251-pound frame, but Fuente’s goal on early signing day was to balance out a running back room that had too many similar small athletic type backs.
“Like, I don’t want them to all look exactly the same,” Fuente said. “And we haven’t done that since we’ve been here, quite honestly. We have just not … we made a focus, concerted effort to go get this thing balanced out in that room and try to be more productive.”
The Hokies added Kansas graduate transfer Khalil Herbert, JUCO transfer Marco Lee along with Jalen Hampton and Jordan Brunson, a pair of three-star running backs out of high school. Lee and Herbert are enrolling in January and will participate in spring practices.
“Marco is a big, strong young man,” Fuente said. “I think Jalen is touching what he can be size-wise. He’s got a really good frame, but he’s got a chance in a year or two to be a bigger person than 195. And then Jordan is a little more developed already. He’s a 210-212 pound guy that’s pretty far along from a physical standpoint…I think we do have a chance to have something really special back there with a couple different styles.”
One question mark facing the group — can Tech really carry 11 scholarship running backs into the fall? Fuente isn’t ruling it out, but conceded it’s unlikely.
“Would you anticipate some attrition if you were a head coach in Division I football these days?” Fuente said. “…We’ll see how it goes. We’ll put the ball down and go compete. But in today’s day and age, I mean, there’s no telling.”