Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente opened his weekly Monday press conference with the typical copy and paste opening statement about how Miami offers a stiff challenge and how the Hokies will need a good week of preparation.
He then prepared for the onslaught of questions that would be asked after Duke manhandled his team on Friday night, defeating Virginia Tech 45-10 from Lane Stadium – a drubbing many characterized as a program-altering.
“Fire away. I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Fuente said with a smirk.
The chief concern from the aftermath of the Duke game dealt with the quarterback position for the Hokies. Ryan Willis has not taken the step forward that many had hoped. Through four games, the redshirt senior is 69-of-114 (60.53 percent) for 851 yards, eight touchdowns, and seven turnovers (five interceptions and two fumbles).
Hendon Hooker was given his opportunity against the Blue Devils, but didn’t impress, botching an exchange with Keshawn King on the fumble that completely turned the game around while only completing one pass for eight yards and rushing for minus-11 yards (13 yards if you take out the minus-24 yard loss he was credited with on the fumble).
“We’ll continue to evaluate all of those things as we go through this week,” said Fuente when discussing who would be the quarterback against Miami. “We’ve got to find a way to be more efficient. We’ve got to be more productive. It starts with those guys. It involves everybody. It’s kind of the same thing we’ve talked about 10 years ago or 15 years ago coaching quarterbacks is you’ve got to have predicted outcomes. You’ve got to execute the play call, distribute the ball to the correct place.”
Heading into Friday night’s game, Fuente confirmed that the plan was to play both Willis and Hooker. It was ascribed as load management with both quarterbacks dealing with injuries. The problem is there’s no indication on how serious either injury is, as Hooker has been wearing a wrap on his non-throwing shoulder while Willis is banged up with foot and shoulder injuries.
It was the first time in his career that Fuente had rotated quarterbacks throughout the game, and he’s not totally against going down that path again.
“I would say that all things are open to be considered right now,” Fuente said. “No, I can’t recall a time. I may be mistaken, but I can’t recall a time where we’ve really rotated guys. I’m sure it’s happened at some point through my career. That’s not usually the normal way we operate, but it is what it is.”
As aforementioned, Willis hasn’t lived up to the expectations many had for him after offering many bright spots last season while replacing Josh Jackson. Friday’s game showcased a quarterback who was again lacking the competitive nature and confidence from last year, going just 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) for 112 yards. Eliminate his 72-yard touchdown to Damon Hazelton, and there’s really nothing positive to be taken away from his performance.
“You get [confidence] from doing the right thing over and over again,” Fuente said. “You can’t give it to somebody. You can show them how to earn it, I think. In my opinion, you get that through repeating the correct performance or the correct execution time after time after time. [Willis] knows he’s done it before, he knows he can do it again. It’s a matter of calming down and doing it on a more consistent basis.”
It’s led to a crowd thinking Hooker could receive his first career start on Saturday against Miami. The redshirt sophomore attempted his first two pass attempts last Friday. Still, the coaching staff remains comfortable with Hooker in the passing game even if they haven’t showed it in live action.
“I feel good,” Fuente said. “He’s taken a whole bunch of reps in the last several years.”
Virginia Tech’s anemic offense has also brought the effectiveness of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen’s play-calling into question. Fuente himself has called plays at previous jobs, but it’s not a route he’ll be heading down anytime soon with the Hokies.
“No, that’s not what’s needed,” Fuente said. “We evaluate all those things. But I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that think they know the answers, and that’s their right. But being inside of it every single day, that’s not the answer.”
So what are the changes that can be made? Fuente was insistent that “you can’t wholesale,” but instead there are tweaks that have to be instituted.
“We’ve got to find a way to play a more efficient game,” Fuente said. “And it’s really collectively as a football team. You look at that game last week, and in no area were we consistent, were we able to execute on a consistent basis in any of the three phases. And that’s very disappointing, and it’s my responsibility 100 percent.
“So we’ve got to find a way to get that across. We’ve got to be tough enough mentally, emotionally, and physically to go play at a high level in all three phases of the game on a consistent basis regardless of circumstance.”
The mental toughness aspect of Virginia Tech seemed to disintegrate as soon as Duke flipped the game and took the lead. Bud Foster noted he was disappointed with how the team responded to adversity in his postgame remarks. It’s an area that’s first and foremost on Fuente’s list of areas that need to be addressed.
“We certainly have to be mentally and emotionally tough enough to respond,” Fuente said. “We know there’s going to be bad things that happen. That’s just the way it is, and we collectively didn’t do a good job responding from that event, and that’s disappointing. That’s my responsibility, so that would be the first thing on the list.”
All in all, it makes for an interesting week before Virginia Tech takes the field again on Saturday, opposite of Miami and Trevon Hill, in a game that is sure to give an even greater look into the makeup of the 2019 Hokies.
- Wide Receiver Damon Hazelton played for the first time this season after dealing with a hamstring injury. He hauled in a 72-yard bomb, Virginia Tech’s only touchdown of the game. “Health-wise he’s fine,” Fuente said. “He was fine after the game. He just needs some more work. I think that’d be the biggest thing for Damon. He just hasn’t practiced a whole lot. Not just for conditioning, but he needs work versus good people.”
- Center Zachariah Hoyt has been practicing, but it still doesn’t sound like he’s 100 percent. “There’s no reason for me to get into it until he’s healthy and fully able to go,” Fuente said. “When that happens, we’ll worry about who’s going in there. I’ve been very impressed with Bryan. For a true freshman to come in, he certainly has a lot of work to do, but to be as competitive and hard-nosed as he’s been in a short time playing center, that’s been a good spot.”
- Offensive lineman Tyrell Smith is officially done for the season after exiting with a leg injury in the fourth quarter against Duke. “It’s unfortunate for Tyrell, but it’s a pretty significant,” Fuente said. “I believe it’s his patellar tendon. So he’ll have surgery here coming up in the next day or so.”