BLACKSBURG, Va. — Do not catch a touchdown. If you catch a touchdown, I’m going to have to fight you.
Tre Turner’s own Virginia Tech teammates encouraged him and other players to concede the Hokies’ Dec. 1 game against Marshall last year, a game that determined if the season would extend to a bowl trip. As unbelievable as they are, these quotes are real, says Turner and other Tech players.
I really hope we lose.
The comments came from the mouths of a small group of players no longer on the team, guys who meant to cripple their own squad just hours before the regular season finale. Just a wide-eyed true freshman receiver last season, Turner was struck by the vitriol of his own teammates.
Well, if we lose we can go home early and don’t have to go to a bowl game.
Tight end Dalton Keene heard them, too, including the one above during preparation for the game against the Thundering Herd—at the team hotel the morning of the game and even on the bus en route to the stadium. The small, cancerous band of players didn’t get their wish. Virginia Tech beat Marshall 41–20 to advance to the Military Bowl, but this revelation—players rooting against their own team—at least partially explains the Hokies’ first losing season since 1992. It also provides some clarity on what was a national talking point this year: the program’s stunning amount of transfers and dismissals, so many that it prompted head coach Justin Fuente to release a public statement in January.
Behind closed doors, while the outside world buzzed about the Hokies, Fuente called an emergency team meeting to address the attrition. It had reached shocking levels, with 14 players in the transfer portal at one point, five of them joining in a 48-hour period. “What is going on? Tell me,” Fuente asked his players in a meeting that changed everything here. “We got to talk about this and put an end to it.”
Dax Hollifield, Virginia Tech’s sophomore linebacker and one of the most highly rated players to ever sign with the school, is exhausted on this Monday morning in August, more than a week into preseason camp. After a morning walk-through, he is anticipating an upcoming four-hour break before having to return to the facility for afternoon meetings and practice. Camp is hard. It is a grind. And Hollifield loves it—it’s much better this go-around than last August, when, just like any other rookie, he looked up to veteran players. He learned quickly to ignore them. “Last year coming in, those guys were saying, ‘We’re not going to be very good, not going to win any games this year,’” Hollifield says. “I’m like, ‘What?!’ I just committed to a place where players don’t think they’re any good. It’s not what I signed up for.”
Most here saw the struggles of the 2018 season before they unfolded. They didn’t necessarily expect the defense to allow its most rushing yards a game in 31 years or that the Hokies would endure their first four-game home losing skid since 1973—it never happened under legendary coach Frank Beamer—but they did know something was wrong. “I was worried the whole offseason,” admits Fuente, Beamer’s replacement who’s entering his fourth season at Tech. “We’ve seen it coming for a couple years. We were going to be really, really young and we had some other guys that had been hanging on by a thread for many years and… It was hard to… You could see it coming and you’re trying to stop it, but it’s hard to.”
A year later, Fuente prefers to talk about this team, the 2019 version of the Hokies, the one that isn’t missing those players who left. This team is different from its predecessor. It is closely knit, like family. It is having fun, looser practices and all. It is positive, optimistic of a rebound from last year’s 6–7 performance, confident in its ability to contend in one of the Power 5’s most wide-open divisions, the ACC Coastal. For many, Miami is the favorite. Some like upstart Virginia. Others pick Pitt to repeat or think Mack Brown will lead the Tar Heels to a surprise run. But why not the Hokies? They return 10 starters on defense and six on offense, including quarterback Ryan Willis, but it is off the field where this group has progressed more than anything. It took some players leaving.
In the last 16 months, this team has lost at least 22 players to dismissal, transfer or academic ineligibility, many of them older guys from Beamer’s final signing class, 2015, and Fuente’s first, 2016. About 60%, or 27, of the signees in those two classes did not complete their careers here. Just 12 remain on the current roster. The team enters 2019 with only five players on its roster classified as seniors, something that will adversely impact the 2020 signing class. The Hokies might have room for just 12–15 signees, Fuente suggests. As for all of those transfers, some who left were the perpetrators of negativity (no one will reveal their names). Others departed as a result of that negativity, and another group sought playing time elsewhere after graduating.
“Part of this deal is, if you graduate and you’re not a contributor, you earn the opportunity to go somewhere and get on the field,” Fuente says. “Couple guys went to smaller places to get an opportunity to play. I think that’s a good thing.” Only about 25% of those transferring players joined another Power 5 team, a striking indicator of recruiting and evaluation misses. “This is a completely different team,” Turner says.
Players say they have leaders now, real ones, not those pushing others to fold. This offseason was different than last year. The offense and the defense bonded. They became a family at events this summer like a pool party at Fuente’s house and the outing at a local trampoline park. “We’ve always done those events,” the coach says. “This year, they’ve made an effort. They like each other more, in all honesty. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company, enjoy hanging out.” Around the Virginia Tech facility, this year sounds different. Practices are more celebratory and louder. The locker room is buzzing with energy. “If you walked into the locker room last year around this time,” Turner says, “it’d be dead silent. No one wanted to be here.” Jarrod Hewitt, a redshirt junior defensive lineman, describes the offense and defense last year as having a complete divide, something that would even emerge during games. “We would turn on each other pretty often,” he says. “The sideline was not where it should have been when things started going downhill.”
It’s a wonder this team managed to beat Virginia to end its four-game losing streak to get to 5–6. The Hokies then topped Marshall in a game specifically scheduled to give Tech a shot at bowl eligibility after a hurricane forced the cancelation of an earlier game against East Carolina. To the chagrin of some players, the Hokies extended their nation-leading bowl streak to 26 years. They lost the Military Bowl against Cincinnati, went on a two-week winter break and then returned on Jan. 17 to an annual team meeting to discuss winter workouts. “I could feel the bad vibes,” Turner recalls. “After that meeting, five more guys entered the portal.” Those guys were receiver Eric Kumah, quarterback Josh Jackson, tight end Chris Cunningham, running back Deshawn McClease and quarterback Hendon Hooker, the latter two eventually returning to the team. This was in addition to the three who left the program mid-season and the dozen who departed last offseason. The college football world mocked the situation in Blacksburg, and players noticed. “It’s hard not to see it,” says tight end James Mitchell. “A laughingstock,” Turner describes.
Amid all of this, Fuente called the emergency meeting, rounding up his players via text message to gather in the team meeting room. “We all come in and he’s at the point where he’s like, ‘What is it? What’s the problem?’” Turner says. One by one, players began to express their frustration and make suggestions for change within the program. Some of the requests were more trivial in nature. For instance, they asked for turkey bacon to be served in the dining hall and the next week, turkey bacon was served in the dining hall. Others asked for uniform alterations. So when you see Tech players wearing orange cleats and orange jerseys at some point this season, you’ll now know why. Enhancements to the players’ lounge are coming, too, and even the practice schedule got an adjustment to accommodate their requests: more morning practices and fewer of those that begin at 7 p.m. The staff altered the offseason conditioning program as well, easing up on grueling workouts that often left players dropping to the ground. They loosened up practice to make it more fun and held more team-bonding events this offseason to bring together two factions, the offense and defense, that were divided a year ago.
Fuente describes the meeting as a “reconnection” with his group, an open discussion that yielded positive results. Players characterize the gathering as a program-changing event. “Players got everything they wanted off their chest,” Hewitt says. “We knew something needed to change. It wasn’t going to go well if we didn’t address the problems we had.” A year later, The House That Frank Built is in better standing. The 72-year-old Beamer visits the facility nearly every day, welcomed by Fuente with open arms. He plays more golf than anything nowadays, especially after having his right hip surgically replaced a few months ago. He and his wife, Cheryl, still live in Blacksburg, but on the market is their 8,000-square foot, $2.2 million home. They plan to downsize and are currently on a waiting list for a housing community. The man who won more games at Virginia Tech than anyone else is on a waiting list in Blacksburg? Beamer chuckles.
The conversation turns more serious when he discusses the impending departure of one of the last vestiges of his era at Tech: defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the longest active serving assistant coach in the FBS, plans to retire after his 33rd season here. Foster is declining interview requests until the end of the season—a typical Bud Foster move, focused on his unit ahead of his final year. “He certainly doesn’t want this to be about him,” Fuente says. Like it or not, Virginia Tech’s 2019 season will invariably surround Foster, but maybe this year should be about the group of players who stayed here, the ones last year who battled both the opponent and their own teammates. Maybe it should be about them, the guys who handled an uncomfortable situation by spitting in the face of a threat.
Do not catch a touchdown. If you catch a touchdown, I’m going to have to fight you.
Against Marshall, Tre Turner hauled in a 45-yard TD pass.