Every coaching search, there will always be young, rising names bound to be in the running. Most superstar coaches had to start somewhere, and that's typically by winning at a smaller, less prestigious school with resource disadvantages, whether that be recruiting footprint, money, facilities, or, in the case of Wyoming, all three! This year's slew of openings will prove no differently. Right there at the top of the young and upcoming lists is 40-year-old Justin Fuente.
Memphis was the first HC job for Fuente, who spent most of his formative years plying his trade at TCU under a variety of different offensive minds (this will be important later). Fuente started coaching at small school Illinois State, an FCS school in the Missouri Valley Conference. He served as the QB coach (2001-2003) and the QB coach and Offensive Coordinator (2004-2006). From there he jumped up to TCU, first serving as RB coach in 2007 and 2008 before getting promoted again to QB and Co-Offensive Coordinator from 2009-2011.
During his tenure as Co-Offensive Coordinator, Fuente's offenses looked something like this:
2009: Scoring Offense (5th nationally), Total Offense (7th nationally), YPP (12th nationally)
2010: Scoring Offense (4th nationally), Total Offense (12th nationally), YPP (14th nationally)
2011: Scoring Offense (9th nationally), Total Offense (28th nationally), YPP (11th nationally)
In this span, TCU made trips to the Fiesta Bowl (L to Boise State), Rose Bowl (W vs. Wisconsin), Poinsettia Bowl (W vs. La. Tech). That 2011 squad lost only two games by a total of 9 points, scoring a combined 81 points in their two losses. All this to say, he handled his business. Fuente coached Andy Dalton and he had Casey Paschall playing well before his off the field issues proved too much.
From there, Fuente took the Memphis job. Proceeding Fuente was the monumentally failed era of former LSU coaching alumnus Larry Porter. Porter won three games in two seasons as the head man. Tommy West won only two games in his final season before Porter. Fuente came in and immediately won four. The next season, he won only three. His fate seemed right in line with recent others. Then Fuente orchestrated a turnaround. Memphis won 10 games in 2014, finishing 25th in the final polls. Last season he got the Tigers off to an 8-0 start, though they stumbled in the back half of the season to three consecutive losses. Still, a remarkable turnaround for a program in horrendous position prior to his arrival. After the regular season, Fuente accepted the head coaching job at Virginia Tech, following the legendary Frank Beamer.
Beamer essentially is Virginia Tech football. He wasn’t going to get pushed out the door without opening it himself. Even then, many figured he would pass the torch to longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Fuente interviewed and impressed the VTech brass enough to make him the choice. More impressively, he showed up to Blacksburg and immediately recruited Foster to stay on his staff. After a meeting, Foster said he was sold on Fuente’s vision for the program. Fuente then pivoted and personally recruited Junior College QB Jerod Evans, who would eventually become his starting QB this season.
Virginia Tech hasn’t won more than 8 games since 2011. They’ve perpetually flirted with .500 each of the last four seasons of Beamer’s tenure. In Fuente’s first season in Blacksburg, the Hokies are sitting at 7 wins with two games remaining against teams with a combined 6 wins.
Fuente is an offensively minded head coach with a documented tie to a spread offensive attack. His Memphis teams trended heavily toward spread passing, nay, air raid, attacks, as documented by Ian Boyd. The question here is, is that a byproduct of preference or necessity? Fuente seems like a bright guy, and his best player on offense was clearly Paxton Lynch, so it may be in their best interest to build entirely around him. The results speak for themselves. Memphis ranked 18th in total offense, 35th in yards per play (behind LSU, actually), and 11th in scoring offense.
But there's more to consider here. Let's take a look at some run/pass splits of his offenses since becoming OC at TCU in 2009. These are rush attempts/pass attempts per game.
Air Raid? Not so much. Fuente has never had a passer reach the 40 pass attempts/game plateau on a season in seven seasons of being an OC/HC with heavy offensive input. Fuente is undoubtedly a spread advocate. He values spacing on the field and using the boundaries. But he's also not afraid to use a mismatch where he finds one. For example:
Memphis loves to move "tight end" Alan Cross, a 6'1, 235-pound former walk-on, around and have him run option "hunt" routes like this one, where he's looking to find space against linebackers in zone. Even though Cross is hardly one of the more dangerous Tiger receivers, the only way to defend this is to shift numbers to the boundary, which leaves two better receivers in open grass with one-on-one matchups to the other side.
By moving people around, Fuente is able to use spacing and numbers to create opportunities. Currently, the top three Memphis receivers are former walk-ons, as are five of the top six, but that wasn't apparent on Saturday.
Fuente knows he's talent deficient, so he works to out-scheme opponents and create mismatches in spaces. Ultimately, he's just looking to give his guys the best opportunity to make a play, because they aren't likely to create that for themselves. Don't make the mistake that this is a "soft" or "pass first" attack. TCU ran the ball 595 times in 2009, 598 times in 2010, more attempts than LSU had in each of those seasons. His rushes come in different incarnations - inverted veers and action off QB runs, but it's downhill rushing nonetheless. This is physical football from spread formations.
What's also important to keep in mind is that Fuente worked at TCU beginning in 2007, under offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who employed more much vintage I-Formation rushing attacks.
This is all to say that Fuente has plied his trade in a few different offensive attacks, and while he's presently a spread offense enthusiast, there's no telling how he would adjust if given stellar athletic talent to coach. What's plainly clear is that Fuente is going to tailor his offense to fit the strengths of his personnel.
It's most worth noting that Memphis simply doesn't attract the level of athletes that even a middling Power Five school would. Fuente did manage to lure four-star Jae'lon Oglesby last season. It's the only four-star recruit he's pulled in his tenure. The results here simply aren't great. The best I could find at TCU is that he pulled Casey Paschall, a three-star.
It's worth noting that Fuente did find and personally recruit Paxton Lynch, a two-star prospect whose only offer came from Florida A&M. And now, at Virginia Tech, he landed Jerod Evans. In the very least, he seems to have a keen eye for QB talent.
Virginia Tech is currently ranked 31st nationally in recruiting. They finished 40th, 29th, 27th, and 21st in their last four signing classes. So he’s batting about average.
But it's fair to say his recruiting is more "evaluation based" than "star based." By that I don't mean chasing stars to chase stars, I mean that he's not been in a position to have to recruit against the big boys in any meaningful way. It doesn't mean that he cannot, only that he has not. Still, a legitimate question mark.
Fuente is a guy who went into an exceptionally tough situation with a plan. Just read this piece from the mothership where he talks about his initial first steps on the job and program building. It's clear Fuente is a guy with a definite vision and plan for fixing the issues he identified, beginning with re-stocking the roster to building up his coaching staff to changing the mentality of his players. Fuente has successfully captained offenses to great success, and lest you think he was a wheel in the cog, TCU's offense fell miserably after his departure, struggling in 2012 and 2013, as the team fell down to 7 and 4 wins. I have little doubt Fuente could show up and fix LSU’s long time QB issues.
Fuente is only 40 years old, and I don't know if he has dreams of coaching in the NFL, but he gives LSU the opportunity to have a lifetime type coach. Think of it this way, Les was 63 years old. If Fuente got the job and coached that long, he'd be at LSU for over two decades. That's a long, long time. That's the shot at the HR. That's the type of hire you let the best coach in school history, who is grew stagnant, go for.
Why Not Fuente?
Remember when I talked about the data and the metadata of Les? Fuente is kinda... the opposite. He's just 32-26 as a head coach. That's... not good. Yes, his situation should totally be taken under consideration. He inherited a bad, bad Memphis team and brought them into national relevance. He's unquestionably done a good job. If you are a hiring AD you have to ask and figure out why it took two seasons to get them anywhere? Urban Meyer inherited a Bowling Green team that won just two games. His first season they won eight. His next season they won nine. That's the type of hire LSU should be looking for here: their Urban Meyer (without the scum). I'd want to understand the whats and whys a lot, and that may require sourcing outside of the interview process.
The other major question mark here is recruiting. Fuente has regional ties to Texas and he's a native Oklahoman. He spent four seasons in Memphis. He’s now in Blacksburg. He undoubtedly knows a thing or two about recruiting the Southeast. Can he stand up in a living room a day after Nick Saban or Jimbo Fisher has come through? Les Miles sure could. Can he assemble a staff that knows the region and can hit the trail hard? We simply don't know, at this point.
The final major question is whether or not he would bolt after one season at Virginia Tech. Publicity wise, it’s not a great look. Lane Kiffin and Todd Graham were skewered for their decisions to make similar moves. Still, LSU is unquestionably a step up in the coaching ranks. Additionally, LSU brass may just want/need to see more. He’s doing well in Blacksburg, but can he take them to a perennial title contender. It may just be too soon for LSU to make that type of leap.
Fuente is a rising coaching prospect in the industry. Fuente needs to prove he can jump into the Power Five fray and maintain his success, but not be expected to win National Championships, like, next year. But leaping right into the LSU job seems unlikely, both from their desire to hire a "name quantity" and his ability to command that type of position.
Fuente doesn't come without questions, but he's an appealing young coaching prospect, and potentially the type of coach that could carry the program through the next twenty years. There's obvious risk/reward here. Can he recruit? Can he take the strains of the SEC meat grinder and media spotlight? Fair questions to ask. Fuente is an exciting prospect, but it may still just be too soon.