Justin Hamilton

Virginia Tech safeties coach Justin Hamilton works players through drills during fall camp. 

CHARLOTTE — Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente returned to the phrase he used discussing Justin Hamilton’s promotion to safeties coach in March.

“Justin [Hamilton], I think, is a future star in this business,” Fuente said.

Less than 10 months later, Fuente used the same words to describe why he handed Hamilton another promotion — this one to replace retiring defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Hamilton went from the team’s director of development for the defense to defensive coordinator in less than two years.

“There was no one moment,” Fuente said of his thinking on Wednesday. “There was no lightbulb goes off. There was no fairy tale story about it. It was just every single day watching him. I believe he’s a future star.”

Fuente spoke about promoting Hamilton to replace Bud Foster during a brief stop in Charlotte between recruiting stops to preview this year’s Belk Bowl.

While Foster announced plans to step down after 2019 before the start of fall camp, Fuente didn’t publicly discuss the looming coaching vacancy during the season. The university was doing basic legwork behind the scenes, but Hamilton was doing the real heavy lifting.

Informally at least.

By the time it came to officially interview outside candidates after the regular season ended, Fuente said Hamilton “set the bar pretty high and nobody could jump over it.”

“He’s interviewed for this job every day for the last two years,” Fuente said. “I’ve seen him work, I’ve seen him communicate, I’ve seen him coach.”

Fuente’s assessment was similar to the ones offered by Hamilton’s former colleagues in a series of interviews with The Roanoke Times over the weekend including North Greenville offensive coordinator Brad Robbins, who spent time on VMI’s staff with Hamilton.

“Let me put it to you like this, if he wasn’t hired to be the defensive coordinator, he would have been a highly sought after position coach and ended up getting a job like this,” Robbins said. “I’m sure coach Fuente recognized that.”

Fuente acknowledged Hamilton’s lack of FBS experience was a concern — his slight resume includes time as UVA-Wise’s defensive coordinator (a Division 2 program) and VMI’s linebacker coach— but that quickly faded into the background.

“I just kept coming back to him and his ability to lead,” Fuente said.

It helped that Hamilton came with a recommendation from Foster himself.

“I’d say Bud did exactly what you would want an outgoing legendary defensive coordinator to do,” Fuente said. “I asked his input. He gave it. And he did not force his opinion one way or another a single day from then on forward.”

That doesn’t mean Hamilton will be beholden to Foster’s scheme.

Fuente made it clear he wants his new defensive coordinator to put his own stamp on the defense. The Hokies have already done that behind the scenes with the decision not to retain defensive backs coach Brian Mitchell and longtime defensive line coach Charley Wiles and turning Adam Lechtenberg’s player development role into an additional defensive assistant. 

Lechtenberg, who was considered the team’s 10th full-time assistant, was promoted to running backs coach to replace Zohn Burden. 

Hamilton was involved in the discussions about the team’s defensive staff for 2020.

“You can’t just carbon copy people or scheme or philosophies, it’s got to change with your personnel, it’s got to change with your staff…” Fuente said. “In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know if there will be wide, sweeping changes, but Justin will have his chance to tweak some things to best fit his personality and what he believes are the strengths of our personnel.”

Mike Niziolek is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Roanoke Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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