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Who Should the New Leader in Blacksburg Be?

Charles Huff

The Hokies clawed their way to six wins by beating their in-state rival Saturday, so now that the regular season has come to an end, Whit Babcock’s top agenda item is clear: find the next head coach of the Virginia Tech football program – with no disrespect whatsoever to J.C. Price.

Over the past couple weeks, many preferred candidates have received extensions – including our pal Ricky LaBlue’s top option, Dave Clawson from Wake Forest. That may take away some excitement about who the next guy will be, but it certainly doesn’t negate the importance of the hire.

Much like I did last season, I have written what I believe is a comprehensive list of coaches that the Hokies might consider – a discussion about 35 potential candidates, including an in-depth profile for 23 of them.

Now that I’ve talked myself into a lengthy list of coaches, here’s who I believe are the top candidates given specific criteria.

Best Veteran Head Coach: Dan Mullen

I don’t know how Babcock will feel about him – or how Mullen will feel about the program – but I believe at face value, they’re each the best that the other can do. Mullen is one of the better offensive coaches in college football, and Virginia Tech is probably the best program beneath Florida’s tier (where Mullen was recently fired from).

Mullen has groomed a laundry list of stars on offense; from quarterbacks like Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott to receivers like Percy Harvin, Van Jefferson, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts. Even in 2020, Florida led the nation in passing yards per game and tied a school record for 500-yard games against SEC competition.

Sure, he’ll need help on the defensive end, but there’s no sense in passing up on an offensive mastermind like Mullen.

Best Young Head Coach: Matt Campbell

Campbell works on multiple fronts. Much like Mullen (although in a much different manner), Campbell is a great offensive coach. Unlike the explosive Mullen system, Campbell centers his offense around the running game and throws to bigger receivers – particularly tight ends. It’s helped him accrue five consecutive winning seasons in Ames and have the most success any Iowa State head coach has had in 100 years.

Campbell’s running backs at Iowa State have had immense success. David Montgomery ran for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his two seasons as a starter for the Cyclones, Breece Hall topped 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground last season, and Hall is 28 yards away from doing the same this year (with a bowl game still to play). Quarterback Brock Purdy has also broken nearly every significant passing record in program history.

There’s no denying Campbell’s qualifications. Similarly to Mullen, though, I’m not sure that he would “settle” for this job, as opposed to a school like USC or simply staying at Iowa State.

Best Offensive Coordinator: Tim Beck

This is my dark horse candidate who no one else is talking about. Everywhere he’s been, he’s had as much or more success than the respective school normally has. He’s shattered record books at Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and now NC State.

Beck has turned Devin Leary into the most efficient quarterback in program history – yes, ahead of Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson. Leary broke Rivers’ single-season passing touchdowns record, and the Wolfpack enter their bowl game with a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 2002.

Beck has long deserved an opportunity to run his own show. With the amount of success he’s had in the state bordering Virginia to the south, Tech should be taking notice.

Best Defensive Coordinator: Mike Elko

Elko has been at higher-profile programs than Virginia Tech for the last five seasons. That means stiff competition and a boatload of pressure. None of that has phased Elko up to this point. He drastically improved Notre Dame’s defense in just one year in South Bend, and he’s turned Texas A&M’s defense into a force to be reckoned with.

Elko has some experience coaching in the surrounding Virginia region, and he’s also been mentored by Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher – two of the best coaches in college football. Surely he’s learned a thing or two about being an effective head coach.

One more feather in his cap: his defensive line coach Elijah Robinson deserves a promotion and coached at two of Pennsylvania’s most prestigious schools for football (including Penn State) for almost a decade.

Best Option From the NFL: Byron Leftwich

Delving into the NFL ranks would be unconventional, but there are traits and other details that make Leftwich someone who should be interviewed, at a minimum. His name alone carries plenty of weight, but so does his experience as a coach.

Leftwich is from Washington, D.C. and is the product of Hokie legend Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay. He’s likely as connected to the state of Virginia as anyone else Tech could possibly hire, and he’s also been around two of the best quarterbacks of this era heavily (Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger) – you can bet that would be a boost towards recruiting quarterbacks.

There’s no certainty that hiring Leftwich would bring success to the program, but sometimes zigging when everyone else zags nets you a diamond in the rough. Whit Babcock should know all about that.

Most Likely Hire: Charles Huff

The combination of youth, time spent in the region, experience in elite programs, and recruiting prowess that Huff boasts seems like too much to resist – although I also doubt they’ll have their pick of the litter.

Huff earned the head coaching job at Marshall primarily by being one of the best recruiters in the nation for at least five years. Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin are most recognizable names to most fans that he’s accountable for, dating back to his days at Penn State, but he’s also done it at Alabama (among other programs).

There is one challenge that Huff would present, though. When he was named the head coach at Marshall last offseason, he opted not to retain J.C. Price. Has that wound healed, or would the Hokies be forced to let go of one of their emotional leaders?

It’s Up to Whit Babcock

The disparity between Babcock’s resume in hiring football coaches, compared to other sports, has been widely discussed in recent weeks. His two football hires have been Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati and Justin Fuente in Blacksburg, and both have resulted in mostly undesirable results.

We’ve seen what Virginia Tech can be when they have strong leadership. It hasn’t materialized in a few years, but the right coach should be able to bring them back to where they used to be – or at least consistently contending for the ACC Coastal crown.

If Tech picks one of these five guys, Hokie fans should be pretty satisfied. If it’s someone else, we’ll have to wait and see.


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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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