The Justin Fuente era is officially over in Blacksburg as Virginia Tech and Fuente parted ways after the Hokies went 43-31 over the past 6 seasons winning 19 games and an ACC Coastal title in the first two years but winning more than 6 games once in the following three seasons before moving on after 5-5 through 10 games.
Whit Babcock has made mostly great hires during his time at Virginia Tech, but the pressure will undoubtedly be on to get this right after Fuente proved to not be the right guy.
One name that isn't on my list below is Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell. Fickell was set to be the top target last year if Tech made a move and Tech's decision not to was likely due to Fickell not wanting to. With USC and LSU both open, and potentially Big 10 jobs opening due to coaches leaving for those jobs, Fickell seems very unlikely though Whit Babcock making a call to Cincinnati wouldn't be surprising.
So who might the top candidates for the job be? Here's my top tier list of potential candidates to watch for the Hokies.
Louisiana HC Billy Napier
Billy Napier has been a top of the board guy in my view for a while now while he's also been linked to Virginia Tech previously by Steven Godfrey for Athlon Sports who's one of the most connected CFB writers out there.
One thing that Whit Babcock has preferred is to hire someone who is an active head coach and Napier fits the mold of a rising star this cycle. He's also done a tremendous job at Louisiana going 37-12 over his four seasons there with four Sun Belt West titles while being on the verge of a third-straight 10+ win season that could finish with Louisiana being ranked in the final top 25 for the second-straight year.
One thing that makes a Napier move clearly different from Justin Fuente is the fact that Napier has a significant background as a Power 5 assistant prior to arriving at Louisiana.
Napier was the Clemson offensive coordinator for two years under Dabo Swinney before being let go. After that, Napier spent several years as an assistant under Nick Saban and proved to be a valuable recruiter before spending a year as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State and being a main reason why the Herm Edwards era got off to a strong start in Tempe.
There's no doubt that Napier understands the importance and value of being a high-level recruiter, something that is likely to be a priority while his Power 5 experience at places like Alabama has shaped how he's built a large program at Louisiana which is something that would also fit what Tech needs.
I have heard from a source that Napier has had interest in the past when there were rumors surrounding Virginia Tech and that this would be a job that he would be interested in actually taking. Of course, things can change but Napier is absolutely a guy to watch.
Of course, Whit Babcock is going to keep this hire very tight to the vest before announcing it so a prediction is probably useless but if I had to make a prediction on who the next Tech coach will be today, I'd likely pick Napier as the guy.
However, Tech may need to get a move on it with TCU also being heavily linked with Napier though Babcock making the move now may be a counter to that to beat out the Horned Frogs for Napier if they are starting to actually lean away from Sonny Dykes and towards someone like Napier.
Wake Forest HC Dave Clawson
If there's a sitting Power 5 head coach that Tech would hire away from someone else, it might be Dave Clawson who has done a tremendous job at Wake Forest and feels like a potential really good fit in Blacksburg.
Clawson has done a tremendous job elevating a bottom 3 job at Wake Forest into a program that can consistently win 7-8 games with the upside to make a big run at an ACC title as they have this year.
Clawson has also been linked as a target of Babcock's by ESPN's Adam Rittenberg this morning on the ACC Network's Packer and Durham (which is syndicated on many radio stations including ESPN Blacksburg).
On Packer & Durham, Adam Rittenberg of ESPN just mentioned Dave Clawson as a possible candidate if Virginia Tech looks to poach the ACC. Wes Durham said he's heard the rumors about VT's interest in Clawson.— Cory Smith (@RCorySmith) November 16, 2021
Your dream might actually come true, @joshwgoodson.
Clawson may only be 49-46 but that includes five winning records of 7+ wins in the past 6 seasons at Wake Forest with the Demon Deacons being the ACC title favorites this year. For reference, the last time Wake Forest had five winning records in a span of six seasons was from 1944 to 1952 when they had eight winning records in nine seasons.
Clawson may not have much high level Power 5 experience beyond Wake Forest or one season at Tennessee but this is a guy who has built successful programs at three additional places before Wake in Fordham, Richmond, and Bowling Green winning 4 conference titles at those 3 schools. He also laid the foundation for Mike London to win a national title the year after he left Richmond and his time at Richmond combined with his tenure at Wake shows a coach who should have plenty of valuable Richmond recruiting ties.
There are some recruiting questions surrounding Clawson which are probably fair, but this is a guy who knows how to build the type of "Development U" that Justin Fuente was unable to achieve and adding a couple strong recruiters like current VT CBs coach Ryan Smith to his staff would go a long way for him (or any next VT hire).
Clawson also feels like he has the right background to connect with Hokie fans well given how he's climbed the ladder from the bottom the hard way that is almost lunch pail-esque while also being a good fit in other regards for Virginia Tech as well.
The question is will Clawson jump especially as Wake Forest pumps more money in to the program in a move to try to keep Clawson? We'll just have to wait and see.
SMU HC Sonny Dykes
Sonny Dykes makes this list moreso because he has been linked to the Virginia Tech job previously by Fox Sports and The Athletic's Bruce Feldman, not necessarily because he is a top target on what I think Tech's board should be.
Dykes would be an interesting hire as there's no doubt that he's proven to be a talented offensive coach who can bring in and develop quarterbacks, something that was surprisingly lacking under Justin Fuente despite Fuente's reputation
Dykes has also done a very good job at the helm of SMU leading the Mustangs to a 30-16 record over his 4+ seasons while leading them to three-straight seasons with a winning record that included a 4+ win/loss differential. There's no doubt that Dykes has done big things at SMU and he also has a very diversified background coaching all over the country from Kentucky to California which could be beneficial.
However, there are some big questions about Dykes first and foremost on the fit front as his recruiting and coaching roots are mostly in Texas, and we've seen how having those type of roots didn't work out for Tech over the past few seasons. Dykes also had an unsuccessful tenure at California where the Bears went 19-30 in four seasons with only one winning record with Dykes actively looking for the next job throughout his time there.
Yes, Dykes has likely learned a lot since that failure out west, but there are serious questions as to whether he can have much success outside his home region.
Of course, Dykes may also prove not to be a serious name in this search anyway with him being the frontrunner to land the TCU job according to lots of those in the national media.
Clemson OC Tony Elliott
Tony Elliott was poised to be one of the two main targets for Virginia Tech if the Hokies made a move last year but like Fickell, likely wasn't moving due to the recruiting COVID dead period and other factors leading to Babcock riding it out with Fuente for one more year.
This year has undoubtedly pushed Elliott down the board as Clemson's offense has struggled post-Trevor Lawrence with a QB in his head it appears, an offensive line that has had issues, and a RB room that doesn't look the same post-Travis Etienne.
In many ways, this seems like a rebuild given the talent loss for Clemson on the offensive side and there's no denying the fact that Elliott was a big reason for Clemson's offensive success prior to this year as an OC since 2015 and RBs coach from 2011-2020 with the one year he shifts away being the year Clemson has RB issues, indirectly showing some of his coaching acumen.
Elliott also is well-respected in many circles and has been around the Dabo Swinney program for over a decade so he knows what it takes to build a high-end winning program. He's also proven to be a very, very good recruiter and given that he's done so in many of the places that the next Virginia Tech coach will need to, that's a major plus.
Yes, Elliott hasn't had a great 2021 but the body of work is absolutely still there combined with the high-end recruiting and P5 experience that the Hokies definitely need with this next hire.
Notre Dame DC Marcus Freeman
Marcus Freeman is a fast-rising name who has climbed the ladder quickly after a great tenure as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati to land at Notre Dame where he's received plenty of praise from Brian Kelly who has even said that Freeman should be the guy who follows him as head coach at Notre Dame whenever that time may be.
Freeman did a tremendous job building Cincinnati into a defensive powerhouse alongside Luke Fickell with the Bearcats' defense still being strong but not as strong without Freeman.
He's also proven at Notre Dame that he can be the type of big time recruiter at the highest level that Virginia Tech is looking for being a primary recruiter for two five-star commitments for Notre Dame already and a secondary for a third per 247 Sports.
One of the biggest things with Freeman is the fact that he may be one of those really good fits in Blacksburg as well. If you've watched his defenses, they look like the defenses that Bud Foster led playing with an intensity, aggressiveness, and lunch pail-like mentality that Hokie fans adore.
He also brings plenty of experience as someone who started out as a Ohio State grad assistant, has spent time in the Big 10 at Purdue as well including as a defensive coordinator briefly, and spent a year bouncing around a few practice squads in the NFL.
Freeman will almost certainly be the top candidate if Luke Fickell leaves Cincinnati for a bigger job as most expect, but Virginia Tech is also a potential school to watch with Freeman being a dynamic, rising star that Whit Babcock should absolutely consider in his top tier.
Marshall HC Charles Huff
I was thinking about including Charles Huff on my secondary list but given the list of things that Whit Babcock mentioned from someone very engaging to top end recruiting ability to someone who can hire a great staff and more, Huff jumps into my main list for me.
What is Babcock looking for in a head coach?— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) November 16, 2021
- Proven track record
- Has VT's values
- Engage community and beyond
- Leader, CEO with "character and competence"
- Can recruit this footprint
- Comfortable at being at the top of the ACC
- Thrive in new era of athletes#Hokies
Huff undoubtedly brings a lot of the fit metrics to the table as someone who is from Maryland and played his college football at Hampton which could be quite valuable for connecting with Tech fans across the Commonwealth.
He's also a top end recruiter who yes, benefits from a large class this cycle, but already has the 50th best class in the country with 26 commits at Marshall and top in Conference USA according to 247 Sports. He also is known as an elite recruiter from his time at Penn State, Mississippi State, and Alabama where he landed loads of elite talent including as the primary recruiter for five-star RB Ricky Slade when he chose Penn State over Tech and others.
Huff is also a very engaging personality and someone who has been a #2 on multiple staffs even if he hasn't been an offensive coordinator as the assistant head coach at Mississippi State and the associate head coach at Alabama. That time of major Power 5 experience definitely is quite valuable and especially since a lot of that on the recruiting side was focused on the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
The one question surrounding Huff will be this season at Marshall as he's been solid but not spectacular with a 6-4 record which is still pretty good for a first year coach and includes some close losses to App State and East Carolina. Huff could also win the Conference USA East in his first season with games against Charlotte and Western Kentucky the next two weeks and back-to-back wins being enough to do so which would be a boost.
Huff may not have much head coaching experience but he's gotten to learn a lot while his high-end recruiting ability, big time Power 5 experience at Alabama and Penn State, and his loads of regional connections check off the fit box in a way that few if any who are likely serious candidates will be able to.