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Hamilton Brings Familiarity to New Era

By Dave Holcomb
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It’s the end of an era with Bud Foster hanging up the headset, yet there will be continuity with Justin Hamilton’s appointment to DC.

The last time Virginia Tech played a game without Bud Foster on the sideline was the season before Frank Beamer arrived as head coach. The year was 1986. Justin Hamilton, who will replace Foster as Virginia Tech defensive coordinator, was just four years old.

Officially, it’s the end of an era with Foster hanging up the headset, and yet, there will be plenty of continuity with Hamilton’s appointment to defensive coordinator.

Seemingly in an effort to continue Hokies football tradition, head coach Justin Fuente promoted another Virginia Tech “lifer” to serve as his defensive coordinator. Hamilton played safety for the Hokies from 2002-05. During his senior season, he was part of a Virginia Tech defense that under Beamer and Foster finished first in yards allowed and second in points yielded in the country.

After a brief NFL career, Hamilton started coaching as the defensive coordinator at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in 2011. He joined Virginia Tech’s staff in 2018 as the director of player development and then coached the safeties last year.

Foster had no affiliation with Virginia Tech prior to joining the Hokies coaching staff in 1987, and Fuente didn’t either before becoming Hokies head coach in 2016, but clearly, the Virginia Tech brand is important to both men. For a multiple of reasons, it’s rare for incumbent defensive coordinators to stay through a head coaching change, but Fuente and Foster made it work quite effectively for four seasons.

There were growing pains, but Foster’s defense finished inside the Top 5 in the ACC in both yards allowed and points yielded three times under Fuente. Behind that defense, Fuente has posted a 33-20 record, which is the second-best mark in the ACC during that stretch behind only Clemson.

Promoting Hamilton signifies more than what even Virginia Tech fans could hope for -- it’s a clear indication that Fuente believes the program isn’t far away from emerging as the best program in the ACC Coastal and even a national contender. If Fuente thought otherwise, he would not have chosen continuity instead of experience.

Of course, hiring Hamilton doesn’t come without risks. He has never held a coordinator role at an FBS school let alone in the Power 5. He hasn’t been a coordinator anywhere since 2013, and he’s barely spent any time on the Virginia Tech staff.

One thing that will help Hamilton, though, is Foster has left the defensive in great shape. The Hokies are stacked with great linebackers returning, including leading tackler Rayshard Ashby. Even star Caleb Farley opting out, Jermaine Waller recorded three interceptions last season. Linebacker Dax Hollifield also posted three picks to help Virginia Tech finish second in the conference with 14.

Hamilton may have only coached the safeties last year, but he can take at least some credit in the success of the team’s defensive backfield. That should continue to be the defense’s strength in 2020.

With Hamilton at the helm, Virginia Tech’s defense can continue to build upon last year’s success, especially late in the year. Had Fuente hired a coordinator from outside the program, the defense would have been starting more from scratch.

The Hokies also ended last season ranked fifth in the ACC in sacks, but that was behind a team effort that saw defensive back Chamarri Conner lead the team with 5.5 sacks. Virginia Tech’s top pass rusher along the defensive linemen in terms of sacks was rising senior Emmanuel Belmar, who only had 4.0.

Hamilton will have to get more consistency from his pass rush in order for Virginia Tech’s defense to truly return to an elite level. Youngstown State graduate transfer Justus Reed, who posted 12.5 sacks in 2019, could help.

Virginia Tech’s brass, including Foster, believes Hamilton is the man to steer the pass rush, and the entire defense, in the right direction. It’s a new era, but continuity could help the Hamilton era begin with a strong start.