February 11, 2016
Tech offensive coordinator with track record of putting up big numbers
Memphis averaged 487 yards per game under Brad Cornelsen this past season

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG — Today’s era of college football features fast-paced offenses, with scoring that resides at an all-time high and yardage that gets racked up in record-breaking quantities.

Justin Fuente and his staff run this exact style of offense, but the man tasked with coordinating this offense gave a rather interesting answer when asked recently to give a general overview of his philosophy.

His first words?

“We’re going to run the ball,” new coordinator Brad Cornelsen said.

Cornelsen served as the co-coordinator at Memphis this past season, during which the Tigers rushed for nearly 180 yards per game. They also threw for 307.5 yards per game and averaged 487 yards of offense. Memphis scored more than 40 points per game. All those numbers ranked in the top 60 nationally.

In contrast, the Hokies ranked 53rd in scoring offense at 31 points per game, but weren’t in the top 60 in any of the other main categories. In fairness, the level of competition was different, but they hope to change their output under Cornelsen’s coordination going forward.

“We’re going to run the ball and try to set up play action,” he said. “We want to try to move fast. You can line up, be simple, hand off the ball, and mow people down, if you’ve got the people to do that. Or, if you don’t, you have to find a way to get yardage on the ground to give your quarterback a chance to play well.

“The last few years at Memphis, we were creative with how we tried to do that. It was fun and exciting. We had some good players who had bought into what we’re doing and been unselfish in that system.”

Of course, a lot of those great numbers at Memphis came about because of the exceptional play of quarterback Paxton Lynch, who completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 3,776 yards, with 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions this past season. The gifted Lynch certainly possesses the attributes to be a fine professional, but Cornelsen deserves some of the credit as well. He served as the quarterbacks coach for all three of Lynch’s seasons at Memphis and all four of his seasons under Fuente.

“He’s a guy we took a chance on,” Cornelsen said of Lynch. “We didn’t know much about him. It was late in recruiting, but there was some upside, some big-time potential that was easy to see on film. Credit to him. He did what he needed to do to develop from a physical standpoint and to learn how to play the game and the position.

“I’m still a little puzzled why he didn’t have more going on [in recruiting]. We certainly did not teach him how to throw the ball once he got to Memphis. There is some natural talent and skill that we were hoping he’d have. That’s what we saw on film.”

Cornelsen has parlayed a smaller school background into a big-time position. He grew up in Texhoma, Oklahoma – a panhandle town of less than 1,000 that straddles the Oklahoma-Texas state line – and his father coached high school football. That set the stage for a future in coaching.

“I knew from a young age that I wanted to coach,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of good mentors along the way, the guys who coached me in high school and college. There are so many who have done so much for me along the way. It’s a winding path. Every stop along the way, you learn something good and something bad and just keep on going.”

Before coaching, though, he enjoyed a rather nice playing career at Missouri Southern State in Joplin, Missouri, where he became the first Division II quarterback in history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 2,000. He graduated in 2000.

He got his start in college coaching in 2001, working as a graduate assistant at Northwest Missouri State under Mel Tjeerdsma, who guided the Bearcats to three Division II national titles over a 16-year career before retiring in 2010.

Working with Tjeerdsma really enforced the value of work ethic for Cornelsen.

“He took an 0-11 team [in 1994], and two or three years later [in 1998], was a 14-0 national champion,” Cornelsen said. “He really established the most dominant Division II program in the past 15-20 years. He did it the right way. He recruited guys and developed them. He recruited kids with character. He went into a small community and threw himself into it. He was always consistent. You knew what to expect. The players knew what to expect. He was consistent in everything he did. Nothing replaces hard work, and that’s what that staff did for many years.”

In 2002-03, Cornelsen worked as a graduate assistant for then-head coach Les Miles at Oklahoma State. Miles went on to coach at LSU, where he won the 2007 national title.

In 2003, Cornelsen landed his first full-time coaching gig, which came under Denver Johnson at Illinois State, an FCS program in Normal, Illinois. While there, he became acquainted with Fuente, who served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, while Cornelsen was the receivers coach.

Together, they formulated the plan for a fast-paced attack.

“We were together for four seasons at Illinois State, both young coaches at the time, creating our own philosophies and styles,” Cornelsen said. “I had a chance to develop a relationship with some of the other guys on the staff, too. It was a neat time. It was a great place for us and a great starting point.

“Justin is really sharp when it comes to offense and quarterbacks. He played at a high level and has always seen the game through those eyes. I’ve learned a ton from him. I learned some things before I got to Illinois State that we’ve adopted and kept this whole time. Coaching evolves. You steal ideas from people. You go see someone every year. You continue to develop and tweak. I think we’ve both stayed in line over the years from a philosophy standpoint. We feel the same way about some things.”

Johnson’s resignation following the 2007 regular-season finale ultimately forced Cornelsen to find a different job. He spent the 2008 season working for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State.

From there, he went to Northeastern State, a Division II school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He served as the coordinator for three seasons before reuniting with Fuente after Fuente got the Memphis job.

“I always hoped we’d get a chance to hook back up,” he said. “It’s funny how things work out some times.”

The Memphis staff turned around a downtrodden program. The Tigers had lost 21 of 24 games prior to Fuente’s arrival. They lost 10 of the first 17 games in Fuente’s tenure. But, as Cornelsen put it, “You chop wood and keep going.”

Cornelsen said he never hesitated when Fuente approached him about being the offensive coordinator here in Blacksburg.

“If you’re in coaching, you know what kind of place this is,” he said. “Even if you’ve never been here, you know what the tradition is. That’s something that is intriguing to any coach. I was certainly excited when he said those words [Virginia Tech].”

He takes over an offense that returns eight starters from the bowl game, but he’ll need to find a quarterback. Michael Brewer departed, leaving the position open for Brenden Motley, Dwayne Lawson, or two prospects who enrolled for the spring semester – Jérod Evans and Joshua Jackson.

Cornelsen and the staff spent much of January focused on recruiting. After that, they wanted to get a plan in place for spring practice. He has already watched film of the Hokies’ 2015 games to get a feel for the situation at hand.

“I’m certainly excited about what I’ve seen so far,” he said.

The talent for a good offense appears to be in place. In roughly a month, Cornelsen begins the task of molding it into just that.

His track record should leave Hokie Nation feeling optimistic about his chances.

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