Fuente optimistic about 2017 recruiting haul

2017 National Signing Day
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente quotes

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – A year ago on this date, Justin Fuente had been on the job for less than two months, and he and his staff were trying to keep the 2016 recruiting class intact, while adding selective pieces to it.

They managed to put together a fairly good class, several of whom played this past season. But rest assured, it was a tad stressful.

“Last year was speed dating,” Fuente said.

The formulation of the 2017 recruiting class took a little more traditional approach this time around, as the staff brought in a 26-member haul that included nine who enrolled for the spring semester and 17 who signed letter-of-intents Wednesday – a day known in college football as “National Signing Day.”

Fuente and his staff constructed a well-balanced class, both in terms of positions and from a geographical standpoint. Eight states are represented, along with Washington, D.C. and Australia. The staff signed two quarterbacks, a running back, three wide receivers, three tight ends and three offensive linemen. On the defense side, the staff secured four defensive linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs to go along with two athletes and a punter.

In addition to geographic and positional diversity, the staff put together a talented group, with ESPN, 247Sports and others ranking the class in the top 25 nationally and in the top five in the ACC.

So Tech’s head football coach came away feeling upbeat about what transpired, though primarily because of the relationships he established.

“I’m much more comfortable because I’ve been around these guys a lot more – and their families,” he said. “That’s not to say the kids that signed last year we look at any differently. We’re happy to have those guys in here, too. It’s just, as a class, I’ve personally been able to spend a lot more time with these kids and continue to teach them about Virginia Tech and what we can do for them.”

More than a quarter of the class hails from the state of Virginia, with defensive back Devon Hunter headlining the class. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder from Chesapeake is arguably the Hokies’ top-rated recruit, and he stuck with the school after committing on Jan. 20.

In securing Hunter, Tech’s staff kept one of the top players in the state, stopping a recent exodus of top-rated state prospects going elsewhere. Fuente hopes that sends a message.

“He had many opportunities to leave the state, and he knows that he can achieve all his hopes and dreams here at Virginia Tech,” Fuente said. “It certainly serves as a great example.”

Hunter, who probably projects as a free safety, played on both sides of the ball at Indian River High School. On offense, he rushed for 1,223 yards and 24 touchdowns, while on defense, he recorded 86 tackles.

Given Chuck Clark’s departure at the free safety spot, Hunter could see action relatively quickly.

“From a physical standpoint, he’s pretty developed,” Fuente said. “Sometimes you recruit guys that are 6-1 and need another 15 or 20 pounds and that sort of stuff. Devon is a pretty developed and mature kid, so I think he’ll have an opportunity to [play right away].”

On offense, quarterbacks always garner the attention, and Tech’s staff brought in two in Hendon Hooker, a 6-5, 212-pounder from Greensboro, North Carolina; and A.J. Bush, a 6-4, 220-pound junior college transfer from Iowa Western Community College. Both enrolled for the spring semester.

Hooker threw for 6,027 yards and 55 touchdowns in his career. He also rushed for 2,975 yards and 48 touchdowns, thus giving the Hokies a true dual threat at the position. But Fuente likes more than just Hooker’s numbers.

“I think he has a great personality and knack for leadership,” Fuente said. “He’s a highly intelligent young man from a great family. He had many opportunities to go to other places. I talked to his dad on the phone many, many months ago, and he said, ‘Coach, we were looking for something, and what you have is exactly what we’re looking for without us telling you what we’re looking for.’ That makes you feel like it’s a good match. That’s one of the many attributes that we feel good about with Hendon.”

On offense, Fuente and his staff also focused on receivers and tight ends, seeing those positions as primary needs. They signed three who project as receivers and three who project as tight ends.

The three receivers – Kalil Pimpleton (5-7, 185), Hezekiah Grimsley (6-0, 180), and Sean Savoy (5-11, 180) – are more slot receivers than outside ones.

“We felt like we needed to have some guys that could play on the inside,” Fuente said. “We have some guys that can play on the outside. It’s a little bit different skill set in what we’d eventually like to do.

“We felt between Sean, Kalil and Hezzy, we’ve got some guys with some versatility that maybe, as we move forward, can be ball carriers and receivers in the slot and all the little short stuff that you see people doing nowadays that is really part of the run game.”

The tight ends include Dalton Keene (6-5, 228), Lecitus Smith (6-4, 260), and Drake Deluiis (6-5,220). Keene and Deluiis possess the versatility to move around, while Smith gives Tech a rugged, in-line blocker that it lacked a year ago.

“Moving forward, to continue trying to mold it the way we’d like to mold it, we need some versatile tight ends,” Fuente said. “We needed a tight end that can play on the line of scrimmage, and we needed some slot wide receivers. We’d like to be able to move those guys around and create different formations with the same personnel group in there. Hopefully in the future, as we go forward, they’ll [the recruits at the skill position] let us do that.”

On defense, Tech’s staff addressed the front seven by signing four defensive linemen and four linebackers. That contingent included arguably the state’s top defensive end in TyJuan Garbutt, a 6-3, 220-pounder from Fredericksburg who recorded 68 tackles and seven sacks this past season. Also, Nathan Proctor, a 6-3, 230-pound defensive end from Maryland, brings impressive credentials after recording 205 tackles in his career.

At linebacker, Dylan Rivers, a 6-3, 230-pounder from Sherando, Virginia, headlines the group. Rivers finished with 102 tackles this past season.

“Defensively, we had to continue to add some depth on the defensive line and at the linebacker position,” Fuente said. “We had to get those numbers back up.”

Wednesday wrapped up a year-long process for Fuente and his staff. Recruiting can be a grind simply because the process does take a year, and the rewards aren’t realized until the future when a prospect hits the field.

But Fuente enjoys the initial task of building those relationships.

“The best part is when you get to sit down and get to meet and really get to know these families,” he said. “Everyone says this is a relationship business, and it is. That’s true. The bottom line is some people want relationships, and some people don’t.

“When you really find those players that have great support systems, or sometimes they don’t have great support systems, and they’re genuinely looking for something, and that something is what you have … when you get a chance to develop that and facilitate that and meet great people behind the people, to me, that’s the fun part. There aren’t a lot of articles about that.”

The Hokies already have started winter workouts in preparation for the 2017 season. Spring practice begins in March, with the annual Maroon-Orange game held April 22 at Lane Stadium.

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