Justin Fuente took the podium Monday afternoon to address the media in a press conference filled with impending questions following Virginia Tech’s shocking 49-35 loss to Old Dominion.
It wasn’t just the result of the game that left the Hokies reeling. The health of quarterback Josh Jackson and the circumstances surrounding defensive end Trevon Hill’s dismissal remained unanswered as Virginia Tech has to prepare for an undefeated Duke squad. Monday’s press conference gave a little bit clearer picture of everything.
Jackson Out, Willis In
The biggest news to come out today was that quarterback Josh Jackson suffered a fractured left fibula in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss. Rumors had been circulating, but Fuente confirmed that the redshirt sophomore would have surgery tomorrow. His timetable for a return is uncertain at this time.
“The timetable I’m a little uncertain on,” Fuente said. “Obviously it’s going to be a little while. As we get through it, if it becomes an issue at the end of the year that we need to talk about, we’ll talk about it then. It’s certainly going to be a little while before he’s going to get back out there and play.
“It’ll be maybe at the end of the year, maybe not. It’s certainly not going to be a couple weeks from now. I can tell you that much.”
Redshirt junior Ryan Willis steps into the role of QB1 in Jackson’s absence. The Overland Park, Kansas native completed 9-of-18 passes for 131 yards and one touchdown in relief last Saturday.
“We turned to Ryan Willis and he performed pretty well last week,” Fuente said. “When he went in there, he’s competitive. He’s been training and working for this opportunity.”
Willis previously played at Kansas, where he started 10 games over two years, compiling 2,530 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound signal caller uses his arm strength to have a little more zing on his ball than Jackson. The Hokies could see a bit of an expanded vertical passing game with Willis behind center. While he may provide less of a running threat, Willis still demonstrated the ability to perform quarterback runs that Fuente’s system is known for, including a 23-yard rush on Saturday that showcased his sneaky speed.
“It’s the benefit of having a backup with a little bit of experience,” Fuente said. “He’s had some game experience at Kansas. He’s prepared, and he’ll be ready. We’ll try to build it [the gameplan] around him, and be ready to try to give ourselves the chance to have success. In my opinion, one of the strengths that we’ve had in our history is that we have molded what we’re doing to fit that person and their skillset a chance to have success.
“When I saw him throw the ball live (for the first time), I was really impressed. He really has some talent there. It’s quick. It’s pretty accurate. It’s strong, he has a strong arm.”
Many fans will wonder if Jackson’s injury opens any doors for the new backup quarterback Hendon Hooker this season. Fuente didn’t rule out the chance that Hooker could see a more increased role at some point this year.
“That’s something that we’ll certainly look at during the week,” Fuente said. “Hendon’s closer to playing. He played a little bit a couple weeks ago, and did well with the long touchdown run. It’s something we’ll certainly look at and try to evaluate as we go through. It may be a scenario where it does mean he plays a little bit or not. It’s certainly a conversation we’re going to have.”
Why was Trevon Hill dismissed?
The aftermath of Saturday’s loss extended well beyond the product that was seen on the field. Redshirt junior Trevon Hill was dismissed from the team according to a statement from Fuente on Sunday afternoon. Hill led the Hokies with 3.5 sacks through the first three games, including 1.5 sacks on Saturday. While Fuente didn’t give a whole lot of details, he did point out that the dismissal didn’t stem from one situation, but it appeared to be a culmination of things.
“I’ve been in close conversation with Trevon,” Fuente said. “I just finished visiting with him and his family. We’ve been continually monitoring and talking about things since we’ve been here. There’s no individual or particular incident. Trevon knows how I feel. We had very frank and honest conversations. Those conversations will remain private. It’s not one incident.”
It’s been a rough 48 hours to say the least, and one has to wonder what kind of hangover effect on the locker room comes with losing your starting quarterback and arguably the best defensive player so far this season. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff and the team leaders to mend the wounds inflicted this weekend.
“The term ‘brought back down to earth’ comes to mind,” Fuente said. “I’m not sure that’s an accurate depiction. I think we have to do a great job as leaders, the coaching staff and our older players, of getting our guys back going a little bit. We try not to use the word, but the facts are we have a very inexperienced, young football team that is now having to fight its way through adversity. They’re going to need help. We’re going to have to do a great job with them, bringing them along.”
Battle of Backup Quarterbacks
Things don’t get any easier for Virginia Tech. The Hokies head to Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday to face No. 22 Duke in a Coastal Division clash at 7 p.m. The game is poised to be a litmus test for Virginia Tech, signaling if the team is prepared to move on from the Old Dominion loss or be left staggering from last week’s result.
“We’ve got a big challenge going to play Duke,” Fuente said. “Probably the best Duke team since I’ve been here. We’ve kind of seen that coming. I think all of you know how I feel about coach Cutcliffe and the job he’s done at Duke. As fine a coach as there is in all America.”
Willis isn’t the only backup quarterback who will be starting on Saturday night. Duke quarterback Quentin Harris replaced Daniel Jones, who went down with a broken collarbone in the 21-7 victory at Northwestern. Since taking over, Harris has garnered six touchdowns and zero interceptions while leading the Blue Devils to convincing victories over Baylor and North Carolina Central.
“The first thing that stands out to me is that he [Harris] values the football,” Fuente said. “He’s obviously been well-coached, he understands that they’ve got a really good defense, that they have some playmakers on the outside and at tailback. He does a good job of distributing the ball. He’s conscious of the football. He’s done a great job taking care of it. His touchdown to interception ratio tells you that. He’s making plays too. He’s not just a guy out there that’s managing the game. He’s athletic, he can throw the ball accurately. They’ve got plenty around him to help him be efficient. He’s played at a pretty high level since he came in.”
Fuente opened the press conference by taking the blame for Saturday’s loss against Old Dominion. As the head coach, it’s important that he’s the one accepting the responsibility and not making any excuses.
“It’s ultimately my responsibility in how we play and the product we put on the field,” Fuente said. “I still feel the same as I did after the game in terms of being disappointed in our discipline level. When we were challenged we did not respond in the right way. Everybody felt like that was going to happen in the first game and it didn’t. It happened the other night. We did not handle it really well. We have to pull ourselves up, roll our sleeves up, and go back to work. Nobody ever quit their way to the top. We’ve got to own it, and suck it up, and go back to work.”
We’ve heard it over and over that Fuente’s motto is ‘Hard, Smart, Tough.’ However, while all three aspects were missing against ODU, it was particularly the ‘smart’ that was lacking as the Hokies were flagged seven times for 95 yards.
“We go to great lengths about talking about playing smart football,” Fuente said. “The challenge is playing smart football is when you’re emotionally off. That’s what happened. We were challenged and emotionally didn’t handle it really well and reacted and responded in the wrong way.”
After dazzling against William & Mary with seven rushes for 58 yards and one touchdown, running back Terius Wheatley didn’t play against Old Dominion, which raised some questions. Come to find out, the redshirt freshman was nursing an injury and would have only played if some other guys went down with injuries.
“Wheatley was there and available for emergencies,” Fuente said. “We’re trying to get him healthy and ready to go. I would anticipate that he won’t be in an emergency role this week.”