Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2020 season and beyond.
Who: Justin Hamilton, Virginia Tech
Title: Defensive coordinator/safeties coach
Previous stop: Virginia Tech safeties coach (2019)
Why he’s important: Okay, so we're bending the rules a little bit here. This exercise examines new hires, but the circumstances merit an exception.
Bud Foster, a founding member of the Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame if such a thing existed, has retired. As his replacement, Justin Fuente tapped Hamilton, a former Hokies player, who worked as Tech's director of player development just two years ago.
Those who know Hamilton -- who played wide receiver, running back and safety for Frank Beamer's 2002-05 Tech teams -- weren't surprised to see him rise from a support staffer to replacing one of the most respected defensive coordinators in college football history in two years' time.
“He’s a big-time coach and that’s not just because he’s a friend, he has it all,” Hamilton's friend, North Greenville offensive coordinator Brad Robbins, told the Roanoke Times in March. “Certain guys get it, and he’s just one of those guys. He’s going to bring the juice. He’s a very passionate guy. Unbelievable communicator and teacher.”
Hamilton's college coaching career began as the defensive coordinator at UVa-Wise from 2011-13. He then spent four years at VMI, coaching linebackers and co-coordinating special teams.
"Justin has earned this opportunity to lead our defense and our football team," Fuente said upon Hamilton's promotion in December. "Everyone in our program has a great deal of respect for him and his abilities. Coach Foster has reiterated to me on several occasions that Justin is ready for this next step in his coaching career. I feel the same way and am convinced he's exactly the right fit for this role at Virginia Tech. Coach Hamilton is a talented coach and recruiter with a deep passion for both the game and Virginia Tech. He possesses a great knack for connecting with our players. His voice carries tremendous weight on the field and in the locker room because he's worn that helmet and experienced many of the same things the young men in our program are going through."
“Justin, I think, is a future star in this business,” Foster said in March 2019, when Hamilton was promoted from director of player development to safeties coach. “He’s very personable, very knowledgeable. The kids have tremendous respect for him. They know who he is and what he did here, what kind of player he was here. How unselfish he was here. And he exemplifies that in his day-to-day life here.”
Hamilton got the job due to the way Virginia Tech finished the 2019 season. From the release announcing his promotion:
During the season's final five regular season games Tech forced 31 three-and-outs and allowed 15.4 points per game. The Hokies become the first ACC team to post back-to-back shutouts against Power Five foes for the first time since 1978, racking up a 45-0 win at Georgia Tech (11/16) and a 28-0 win vs. Pitt (11/23). Tech finished the regular season ranked second in the ACC and ranked seventh among Power Five schools in Red Zone defense.
As you'd expect with any internal promotion, Hamilton will bring his own flavor to the Virginia Tech defense, but it's not going to be a whole new recipe.
“There will be some difference, and I think you’ll see a lot of similarities, too. I think we’ll do a bit more structurally," Hamilton said earlier this spring. "The aggressive nature people think of when they think of Coach Foster wasn’t necessarily blitzing as much as it was we were going to have a lot of people involved in the run game. We were going to rely on our secondary to be in coverage, and for the better part of three decades, it was the best in the country. So you can’t just throw that out. There will be aspects of that, but I would like to add to that from what I learned as an NFL player and what I’ve learned in coaching and what these guys [assistant coaches] have brought in and done."
In addition to Hamilton's promotion, Fuente hired Tracy Claeys as linebackers coach, former Buffalo Bills D-line coach Bill Teerlinck to the same position, former Hokies star (and a teammate of Hamilton's) Darryl Tapp as co-defensive line coach, and Ryan Smith as cornerbacks coach, meaning Virginia Tech will have an entirely new defensive staff outside of Hamilton continuing to coach the safeties.
While the staff is largely new, the roster is not. Virginia Tech returns 10 defenders with at least 10 career starts. ESPN's Bill Connelly ranks the Hokies' defense fifth in returning production among all FBS teams, bringing back 89 percent of its 2019 production.
Virginia Tech hosts Penn State on Sept. 12 and makes an Oct. 10 visit to ACC dark horse -- can you really be a dark horse if everyone says you're a dark horse? -- North Carolina plus a Halloween trip to Louisville, but the Hokies miss Clemson. If Hamilton and the new staff he leads can hit the ground running, you'd be hard pressed to look at this schedule and not find at least 10 winnable games.