Virginia Tech surprised a lot of people Sunday as they promoted safeties coach Justin Hamilton to be their next defensive coordinator, replacing the retiring Bud Foster. Here's three thoughts on the Hokies' promotion of Hamilton to defensive coordinator.
1. Justin Hamilton EARNED This Opportunity.
Justin Hamilton wasn't simply given a high-end coaching opportunity when he left the NFL. Hamilton has had to earn his way up the college football coaching ladder starting at Division II UVA-Wise as a conditioning coach in 2010.
Yeah, not exactly the type of job that most NFL players likely end up at for their first coaching stop.
However, Hamilton's story has been one of climbing from the lowest levels to great heights working his way up to UVA-Wise's defensive coordinator for 2011-2013 before jumping to the FCS level at VMI. Once there, Hamilton worked his way up the Keydets' staff starting out as as a linebackers coach (outside: 2014-16, inside: 2017) before quickly earning greater responsibility becoming a co-special teams coordinator as well from 2015-2017.
At every place he's been, Justin Hamilton has earned his way up the ladder with his climb from off-the-field assistant to defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech being the latest example. While there is a legitimate case to make that Hamilton maybe could have used another year or two before making this move, Hamilton has always exceeded expectations even when it seemed like it might be too much too soon.
The hiring of Justin Hamilton definitely carries some risk but based on how he's exceeded expectations every step of the way so far, Hamilton is a risk worth taking.
2. It's a Very Good Situation for a First-Year Defensive Coordinator.
While some wonder if Justin Hamilton is ready or not, Hamilton has a great situation to inherit to launch his defensive coordinator tenure at Virginia Tech.
First is the obvious fact that he will likely be running a defense very similar to what Bud Foster has been doing for a long, long time. Simply being able to continue to build on that foundation rather than have to teach something dramatically new is a serious advantage especially since the Hokies' bowl practices can provide valuable preparation for Hamilton's defense because it will almost certainly be very similar to Foster's.
Second, Hamilton leads a defense that returns basically everyone with only 1 starter and 2 players on the two-deep graduating this season. While a transfer or NFL Draft declaration is possible, it's hard to imagine the Hokies not having at least 80% of their starters and two-deep returning next season, something that almost no defense in America will be able to say.
Third, Hamilton inherits strong player leadership and multi-year starters at each level of his defense with Caleb Farley, Divine Deablo, Rayshard Ashby, and Jarrod Hewitt. That type of veteran leadership and multi-year starter experience is rare for a new coordinator to inherit and especially to inherit in a situation like Hamilton's where the defense will likely be very similar to what Tech has run under Foster.
Whether you think Hamilton is ready to be the Hokies' defensive coordinator or not, what's clear is that he has an ideal situation to enter into with a veteran defense, a consistent scheme, and a great mentor in Bud Foster to provide lots of advice in it all.
3. Justin Hamilton Will Benefit From Bud Foster, Could Use a Veteran Position Coach.
While it does seem like it may be a year or two early for this move, what makes it feel like that isn't as big of an issue is the presence of Bud Foster.
Will Stewart of Tech Sideline tweeted out that he's hearing that Foster will take on a large mentoring role with Hamilton over the next year. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone given that Foster is going to have a role with the athletic department anyway as previously announced. Additionally, Foster's passion for the game isn't going away because he's retiring and just as Fuente has kept an open door for Frank Beamer, it's reasonable to expect the same for Foster with Hamilton.
Even with that, it would still be wise for Hamilton to add at least a position coach or two with lots of collegiate coaching experience, and preferably some at the Power 5 level or a strong knowledge of Tech's defense. There's a couple coaches who are either available or could be available that would fit that bill quite well.
J.C. Price has done well as the defensive tackles coach at Marshall for several years and earned a co-defensive coordinator title this past season. Price is also a former All-American at Virginia Tech with knowledge of the primary recruiting areas for the Hokies that could make him a good, veteran fit on a Hamilton staff.
One coach who's available who could also fit well is Old Dominion defensive coordinator David Blackwell. Blackwell was a popular name to mention on message boards even though there really appeared to be no traction with him being a defensive coordinator. However, Blackwell does bring valuable experience from his time as a DC that could be beneficial for Hamilton. Blackwell has also coached all over the East Coast as a position coach at Pittsburgh and Clemson, and a defensive coordinator at USF, East Carolina, Jacksonville State, and Fordham.
Now those names are just speculation, but Justin Hamilton would be wise to bring other experienced defensive coaches, including someone with defensive coordinator experience at the FBS level, to be another coach to provide wisdom and a veteran coach to have in game.
Extra Point: He Has Plenty of Support From Former Players
Hamilton may not have been the most popular hire with some Tech fans, but he definitely is a popular pick among fellow former Hokies including prominent players like Brandon Flowers, Bryan Randall, and more.
This is only the beginning for Jham. I’ll give him 3years before he’s a “Head Coach” somewhere. Smart guy and true leader. I’m glad the head man gave him a chance to start his legacy ASAP at VT. https://t.co/hrBkYMeeRX— Brandon Flowers (@BFlowers24) December 8, 2019
J Ham!!! Proud of ya brother !! Nothing but respect!! I know how hard you worked as a teammate can’t wait to see how you have the Hokies flying around!! Classof2001 https://t.co/p0IWxR2Ra0— Bryan Randall (@3_B_RAN) December 9, 2019
My guy!!! proud of you my brother. (I was a smart mouth overly confident freshman and was in a room with this guy and he looked out for me, cussed me out a few times in some games) Lol BUT BEYOND PROUD OF YOU @coach_ham Can’t wait to be on a staff with you! https://t.co/q1Hav0gdJq— David Clowney IV (@DavidClowney) December 8, 2019
Couldn’t have picked a better guy to follow Bud. Congrats J Ham!!! LFG https://t.co/Zb61zT2lQt— Sean Glennon (@SeanGlennon7) December 8, 2019
Congratulations to @coach_ham Justin Hamilton on being named the new defensive coordinator of the Hokies! He was a terrific multi position player for the Hokies and is ready for the challenge. Kudos to @CoachFuente on a great hire! Now let’s get a bowl win!— Mike Burnop (@MikeBurnopVT) December 8, 2019
To follow a legendary coach like Bud Foster, you want to ideally have as much support as possible among those who's voices can ring loudest and Hamilton brings that. Now this isn't to say that another defensive coordinator wouldn't have that among former players depending on who it was, but there is no doubt that Hamilton will bring that to the table which is quite valuable.
Hamilton can also use those connections, in addition to his NFL ones, as a way to earn respect and trust quickly that he is someone who knows what it takes to turn high school graduates into great football players and great men.
It also appears that Hamilton will have the trust to bring in talented former players on occasion to voluntarily provide guidance including from guys like Brandon Flowers who have shown interest in coaching in the past, and would more than likely voluntarily come to Blacksburg to work with defensive players for a few days.