BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente found out early Saturday morning the team would be without defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton for the season opener against N.C. State.
The defensive coaching staff had been short-handed in recent weeks — Fuente said they were down to two full-time coaches and one graduate assistant — as the team dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that also left dozens of players in isolation or quarantine.
Fuente couldn’t even turn to the most experienced defensive coaching to call plays with linebackers coach Tracy Claeys also missing in action. Claeys, who has more than 20 years of experience as a defensive coordinator and was a one-time head coach at Minnesota, missed the entire previous week of practice.
The next in line ended up being 29 year old Ryan Smith, the team’s first-year defensive backs coach. His lone experience calling plays came during the team’s second scrimmage when the Hokies practiced various scenarios like the one they were faced with Saturday night.
Tech’s defense had a strong night with Smith at the helm in the 45-24 win. The Hokies shut down the Wolfpacks’ rushing attack (they had 139 yards and only averaged 3.3 yards per carry), forced a pair of interceptions and pressured the quarterback all night.
Safety Divine Deablo said Tech mixed in a lot more zone coverages than they played last year while N.C. State coach Dave Doeron said his team failed to pick up some of the blitzes Smith called. Tech came up with sacks twice on third and long bringing pressure from the linebackers.
“Ryan has a bright future in this game,” Fuente said. “He was really sharp and prepared when I told him this morning what we were going to do, he was neither surprised or taken back. He was ready for the moment and stepped up to the plate and did a fantastic job."
Fuente also credited the leaders on the defensive side of the ball for keeping the group on track. Players were told during their pregame meal in Roanoke that Hamilton wasn’t cleared to be on the sidelines.
"I would say it shouldn't be understated the value of team leadership,” Fuente said. “Those guys certainly stepped up and helped the situation. Those are veteran guys who have played a bunch of snaps... We all know the names. That's certainly helped."
Defensive tackle Jarrod Hewiit, linebacker Rayshard Ashby and Deablo all came into the game with more than 20 career starts. Deablo said there were very few communication errors on the field.
“It went pretty smooth,” Deablo said.
The night ended with Fuente dialing up Hamilton on FaceTime in the team’s locker room to let him take part in the unusual post-game celebration.