Thursday, November 23, 2017
Colleges

Fennelly: I've got Florida's next coach right here

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Here’s your man, Florida.

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente.

He checks all the boxes. A winner. An upward career path. Young and energetic enough to steer Florida out of its misery and into the future. With offense.

Jim McElwho?

It’s a close call between Fuente and UCF’s Scott Frost, but I’m going with Fuente. It all lines up, provided Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin can lure Fuente away from Tech. Fuente is worth going for it.

The 41-year-old Tulsa, Okla., native played quarterback for Oklahoma and later Murray State. But it’s about more than that. After all, Frost played quarterback for Nebraska and won a national title (played Fuente twice, crushed him) before he coached Marcus Mariota as offensive coordinator at Oregon and turned around UCF, from 0-12 to half a hundred a game. There’s a lot to like about the 42-year-old Frost. He would be a good Florida coach.

He’s my runnerup.

I like Fuente. He has already been successful on a bigger stage, the Atlantic Coast Conference. He has Virginia Tech at 7-1, 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings, as the Hokies head to play Miami on Saturday.

I like Fuente more much than I like Chip Kelly, who might be the sexier pick. But for all his former wizardry at Oregon, Kelly also owns the shadow of that NCAA show-cause sanction.

I like Fuente more than I like former USF coach and first-year Oregon coach Willie Taggart. And I like Willie. People ask what Taggart has done. Well, what has Frost done? Taggart has turned around two mid-majors and would have Oregon, which went 4-8 last season, better than 5-4 if his starting quarterback hadn’t been injured.

I like Fuente more.

He’s 36-11 over the past four seasons at Memphis and Virginia Tech. His Hokies rank 29th nationally in scoring offense (35.4 points per game) and 32nd in total offense (Florida, by the way, ranks 110th and 112th in those categories).

I like Fuente’s work at TCU, where as co-offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer he gave Gary Patterson’s program some offensive jam, especially with future NFL quarterback Andy Dalton, who led the Horned Frogs to a perfect season in 2010, including a Rose Bowl win.

Fuente then took over Memphis in the AAC, the Group of Five cradle of Power Five coaches. I love the work Memphis coach Mike Norvell is doing there now — he will get his own Power Five job — but it was Fuente who rescued a lifeless Memphis program that had won a combined five games in the three seasons before Fuente arrived in 2012. Fuente molded a skinny quarterback out of Deltona named Paxton Lynch. The points piled up in a pro-style offense. Lynch is now in the NFL.

Florida could use some of that QB development.

Fuente’s 1½ seasons at Tech jump out. It isn’t easy replacing a legend.

See Zook, Ron.

Fuente succeeded Frank Beamer in 2016. All the Hokies did was set school offensive records for points (490), first downs, touchdown passes and total offense. They won 10 games for the first time since 2011 and won the ACC’s Coastal Division for the first time in five seasons.

Fuente didn’t blink when his star quarterback, Jerod Evans, left for the NFL after last season. Virginia Tech redshirt freshman Josh Jackson leads Power Five freshman QBs with 2,093 passing yards and 17 touchdown passes.

Fuente has respected Hokies history. Beamer was asked by Fuente to speak to the team late last season. McElwain reportedly turned down Gators legend-in-residence Steve Spurrier this season when the Head Ball Coach offered his assistance. And Fuente forged a relationship with longtime Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who has the Hokies No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense.

Fuente isn’t flashy, which will be a letdown for some Gator fans, but that’s not a knock. He is reportedly not a strutting egotist. Florida is ready for both those things.

Virginia Tech will do anything to keep Fuente. And the reality is that it might be easier for Fuente to make the CFP and win a championship going through the ACC rather than the SEC. And Fuente might want to avoid the Florida mess.

Justin Fuente is the guy I want if I’m Florida. Whether the Gators can get him is the question, but it’s one worth asking — and trying to answer.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029.

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