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Justin Fuente enters 2016 as strong ACC Coach of the Year candidate

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire

The 14 ACC football coaches have combined to win 15 coach of the year awards at current or former positions. Incredibly, six of those 15 coach of the year awards belong to the four new coaches joining the conference this season.

No wonder a large amount of hype surrounds these four new coaches. It’s not just Mark Richt; Justin Fuente, Dino Babers and Bronco Mendenhall have all had tremendous success wherever they have coached in their careers.

So, although Clemson and Florida State are clearly the top two choices to win the ACC and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of these four new coaches win the ACC Coach of the Year Award in 2016. Of those four coaches, Fuente is in the best position to be a candidate for the award.

For years, Virginia Tech was a defense-minded team under legendary coach Frank Beamer, but that will quickly change with Fuente, who is one of the most underrated offensive minds in college football.

Quarterbacks consistently evolve under Fuente’s guidance. If this happens in Blacksburg in 2016, the Hokies have the complementary pieces — playmakers at the other skill positions and a strong defensive coordinator, Bud Foster — to experience immediate success, making Fuente a prime candidate for conference coach of the year. Virginia Tech would be able to outpace the other ACC Coastal teams with new head coaches.

As offensive coordinator at TCU, Fuente developed Andy Dalton into a pro-ready quarterback. In his senior year, Dalton completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,857 yards, 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions while averaging 9 yards per attempt. That season, TCU was tied for fifth in points per game (41.5) and ranked 11th in yards per contest (477).

Then at Memphis, Fuente oversaw the development of now-NFL quarterback Paxton Lynch, who was just selected in the first round of the NFL Draft this past spring. Lynch threw 28 touchdowns and only four picks last season with the Tigers.

It’s going to take some time for Fuente to establish his own signal-caller under center with the Hokies. Until a few of his own recruiting classes come to Virginia Tech, the 40-year-old coach will have to make the most of what has been given to him by the previous regime.

His top two playmakers on offense will be junior wide receiver Isaiah Ford and redshirt sophomore running back Travon McMillian.

Ford made the preseason All-ACC First Team, receiving the second-most votes at wideout behind only Clemson’s Artavis Scott. The sophomore was the only receiver in the ACC last season to record 1,000 receiving yards and the only one to have more than 10 touchdowns. Overall, Ford collected 75 catches, 1,164 yards and 11 scores.

New Hokie starting quarterback Jerod Evans would be wise to look for Ford quite often this season. The receiver can make tremendous plays down the field, evident in his 15.5 yards-per-catch average, which ranked ninth in the ACC a year ago. Ford also finished fourth with 5.8 catches per game, so he isn’t just a big-play threat; he’s a high-volume receiver, too.

However, McMillian might be the key to Virginia Tech’s offense. Last season, he became the first running back to gain 1,000 yards in a season for the Hokies since David Wilson accomplished the feat in 2011. McMillian rushed for 1,042 yards, averaging 5.21 yards per carry, and scored seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.

It’s in Fuente’s DNA to pass the ball, but McMillian is important in order to keep opposing defenses honest. Without a running game, the opposition could focus on taking away Ford, and Virginia Tech might have trouble moving the ball. Fuente must prevent that from happening by using both playmakers equally and establishing a second receiver.

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster should give Justin Fuente a very good chance of climbing to the top of the ACC -- how soon is the question. (Photograph by Greg Thompson / Icon Sportswire)

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster should give Justin Fuente a very good chance of climbing to the top of the ACC — how soon is the question. (Photograph by Greg Thompson / Icon Sportswire)

Finally, Bud Foster staying with the program is a big reason immediate success could greet Fuente and the Hokies. Foster has been on the Virginia Tech staff for 30 years, and he could have felt betrayed when the athletic department selected Fuente, a man nearly 20 years his junior, as head coach rather than himself. Instead, Foster chose to stay loyal and attempt to rebuild his depleted defense.

Give Fuente credit too, for not claiming he wanted his “own guy” to run his defense. Virginia Tech took a step backward defensively last year, but the quickest way to immediate renewal was to keep Foster as defensive coordinator. That level of continuity should benefit the Hokies.

Most aren’t expecting much from Virginia Tech this season, so Fuente’s squad could surprise some people. The Coastal Division is wide open – if the Hokies make a run at the division and earn a bowl appearance with seven or eight wins, Fuente will be a top three choice for ACC Coach of the Year.

If both Clemson and Florida State lose at least once and North Carolina doesn’t match its 11-1 regular season from 2015, a nine-win Virginia Tech team could lift Fuente to the top.

ACC could stand for “abrupt, considerable conquest” for Justin Fuente in Blacksburg.

Justin Fuente enters 2016 as strong ACC Coach of the Year candidate

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