Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
It's well-documented that Justin Fuente's #1 coaching mentor is TCU head coach Gary Patterson. After Patterson, current Tech special assistant Jerry Kill has climbed to #2 on that list based on what we've seen.
The relationship between Kill, who was recommended by Patterson, and Fuente has been a growing storyline over the past few month after the Hokies' turnaround happened right after the arrival of Kill.
Over these past few months, Fuente and Kill have built a strong trust with Kill also earning the trust of Tech players especially running backs as Deshawn McClease's comments in November showed.
McClease said he often goes to Jerry Kill, #Hokies special assistant to coach Justin Fuente, after a possession to get an eval from Kill on what he's seeing from Tech's running game.— Norm Wood (@normwood) November 12, 2019
That trust has manifested itself into making a difference in who Tech hires with Fuente bringing on board Tracy Claeys, Jerry Kill's defensive coordinator and replacement at Minnesota, to be Tech's linebackers coach.
This is the first time Claeys hasn't been a head coach or defensive coordinator since coaching the defensive line at Saginaw Valley State from 1995-1998. For a coach like Claeys to jump at a position coach job and for Justin Fuente to hire Claeys, who hasn't coached previously with Fuente, shows how much both men trust Kill.
Additionally, while Virginia Tech likely was looking to add a veteran defensive assistant to be a gameday deputy for Justin Hamilton, Claeys' time at Washington State would normally create lots of hesitancy to make a hire especially given how long it's been since Claeys hasn't been the guy in charge of more than just a position group.
For those who don't know, Claeys was the defensive coordinator at Washington State beginning in 2018 before stepping down midway through this season as the Cougars' defense struggled mightily.
However, how that played out didn't go well according to what former Washington State QB Connor Halliday said on a WSU podcast during the season. Specifically, Halliday mentioned there was a rift between Claeys and CBs coach Darcel McBath with Halliday stating that Claeys simply left a note on his desk when he stepped down and was nowhere to be found.
Here's the specific quote from Halliday as transcribed in the Seattle Times about how Claeys went about his departure.
“Monday rolled around and Claeys wasn’t there and there was a letter of resignation on his desk and nobody ever saw him again,” (Connor) Halliday said. “So Darcel got what he wanted. He wanted Claeys gone and Leach has obviously had a relationship with Darcel going way back, and so that’s what Leach is putting his chips in moving forward.”
Yeah, that's not exactly the professional way to go about things even given how toxic the situation clearly was in Pullman. For many at the Power 5 level, this would likely be a red flag especially those not offering Claeys the opportunity to be the guy in control of the defense as was the case at Virginia Tech.
Now Claeys was definitely going to get an opportunity, but a Group of 5 coordinator job seemed more likely in theory given how things went down in Pullman and the staff issues that existed. That usually would also keep someone like Justin Fuente away especially with Fuente having no prior relationship and wanting to make sure Justin Hamilton's first defensive staff was on the same page with him from the beginning.
This isn't to say that Claeys isn't going to be able to handle this role well at all. If anything, Claeys will likely see this as an opportunity to do well and earn another defensive coordinator job at the Power 5 level, especially with the talent that he should have to work with at linebacker. This is also a first-time incident for Claeys and not necessarily a track record thing at this point, another good sign that Hokie fans should be confident even with the red flag of the toxic situation at WSU.
However, Justin Fuente would likely have not hired Claeys given this past issue or been very hesitant to do so at minimum. Claeys would have likely also been hesitant to jump on as a position coach for a first-time Power 5 defensive coordinator at a place where he has no connection to said coach.
Instead, Justin Fuente and Tracy Claeys are working together with the one common thread being Jerry Kill, someone who has trusted Claeys for a while and has earned the trust of Justin Fuente to the point where Fuente is willing to bring in a Kill confidant even after a rocky end at his previous job.
Because of it, Justin Hamilton now has a veteran defensive coordinator that should not only be a great coach, but another quality mentor especially on gameday when Bud Foster won't be able to have communication once kickoff comes.
That's the hope at least with Justin Fuente trusting Jerry Kill enough to take a chance that Claeys' Washington State issue was about those in Pullman and not about Claeys.