If you look at an NFL coaching staff, you will see a list of assistants that seems to be endless with many teams having assistant for a coach at a particular position group. NFL teams have a lot more money to spend on coaches than college football programs and no rules that inhibit the number of on-field assistants. Of course, parth of that comes from the difference in how college programs have to recruit talent and NFL teams either draft talent, make trades, or sign free agents.
For many NFL teams, they bring in young coaching prospects as assistants to a coach at a particular group and start developing coaches from that level. Sometimes, that development pays off and other times, it doesn’t.
There are many examples of this across the NFL with one of the best examples being former Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. After spending years as a college coach, the Packers hired him for the 2003 season as an assistant offensive line coach. Within a few years, he worked his way up to being the offensive coordinator for the Packers before leaving to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Throughout the NFL, there are numerous examples of teams bringing in coaches and trying to develop them, creating a pipeline of coaches who know their team’s philosophies and are ready to be put into greater positions of responsibility. While many coordinator hires are from outside an organization, a lot of teams will promote from within for non-coordinator positions with Philbin being an example of a NFL team promoting from within.
This approach of developing coaches has slowly become a part of the college game and is an approach being adopted by coaches across the country to an extent with Justin Fuente being among those coaches.
The rise of quality control assistants and director of player development positions are your equivalents to those assistant position group coaches in the NFL. The only difference is that you never see a coach receive that specific of a title at the collegiate level.
There may be no better example of this practice being adopted by Fuente and Virginia Tech than the promotion of Adam Lechtenberg from an off-the-recruiting trail assistant role to an on-the-recruiting-trail assistant.
Before arriving at Virginia Tech, Lechtenberg had spent some time on Justin Fuente’s Memphis staff in a role largely centered around recruiting. However, Lechtenberg didn’t follow Fuente to Blacksburg immediately taking a job at UT-Martin as a WRs coach and passing game coordinator for the 2016 season.
After gaining that experience to add to his experience as a TCU grad assistant from 2007-2009 and co-offensive coordinator experience in 2010 and 2011 at Central Connecticut State, Fuente decided to bring Lechtenberg on as the Director of Player Development.
Lechtenberg’s role was not limited to any one area as though Lechtenberg was largely involved in the recruiting evaluation and planning side of things, Lechtenberg also did plenty of coaching on the offensive side of the ball for the Hokies. From what we’ve learned, Lechtenberg became a trusted offensive coach for Fuente alongside his group of assistants.
When the Hokies did promote Lechtenberg into the 10th assistant role, there were a lot of fans who had questions about the hire in part because of how Lechtenberg’s resume was lacking. However, the approach that the Hokies took with Lechtenberg was one that the NFL commonly does, hiring a young coaching prospect and letting them develop in a smaller role to see if they can handle a role of greater responsibility.
In the case of Lechtenberg, he not only was effective as a coach but he also developed as a coach to earn Fuente’s trust to be promoted as the 10th assistant.
However, Lechtenberg isn’t the first coach at Virginia Tech to follow that model.
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Mike Bangston started his coaching career working at smaller programs outside of FBS and FCS football as a grad assistant at Northwest Missouri State and an offensive line coach at Upper Iowa. In 2015, Fuente saw that Bangston had potential to develop into a quality coach and brought him on as a grad assistant at Memphis. In 2016, Fuente brought Bangston with him to Blacksburg as a grad assistant before promoting him to be a quality control coach in 2017.
If Bangston was in the NFL, his title last year would have likely been assistant offensive line coach as he was the #2 offensive line coach alongside Vance Vice. Like Lechtenberg, Bangston was a developing coaching prospect who showed during his time under Fuente that his future was as an on-field assistant at a FBS program.
Unlike Lechtenberg, that opportunity would not come in Blacksburg as Bangston was hired by South Alabama this past offseason to be their offensive line coach. However, Bangston’s path is similar to Lechtenberg starting out as a coaching prospect, working off-the-field as a quality control assistant for a major program to develop as a coach, and then earning a job in major FBS football.
Looking to the future, the Hokies are continuing to follow that model on the defensive side of the ball with Justin Hamilton.
Hamilton was hired to be the Director of Player Development – Defense, a role that he will now return to after filling Galen Scott’s role in the interim till the hiring of Tyrone Nix as safeties coach.
While Hamilton did have some Hokie connections from his time as a player in Blacksburg, Hamilton’s path is similar to Lechtenberg and Bangston. Hamilton’s coaching career started out as UVA-Wise where he worked his way up to being the defensive coordinator at the Division II program. In 2014, Hamilton made the jump to the FCS level as a linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator at VMI.
During his stops, Hamilton emerged as a coaching prospect and like a baseball team scouting around the world looking for the next top prospect, Virginia Tech went out and brought in Hamilton in a smaller role to develop him as a coach. Looking ahead to this fall, Hamilton will likely be the third assistant in the DB room for the Hokies and if this was the NFL, he would likely be officially the assistant defensive backs coach.
The examples of Lechtenberg, Bangston, and Hamilton aren’t the only ones at Virginia Tech or across the country. However, they do show how Justin Fuente and other college football programs are following the NFL in bringing in young coaching prospects and letting them develop in lower-level roles on their staffs.
While many hires for prominent assistant positions will continue to likely be exterior hires, the rise of internal promotions is here to stay in college football as major college programs including Virginia Tech take a NFL-like approach with coaching development.