An offseason that was supposed to be full of hope for Virginia Tech football is now suddenly filled with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“While you can’t prepare yourself for what we’re going through right now, and nobody could tell that this could happen months ago and what effect this would have on Virginia Tech Football, I have been pleased with what I have seen from our guys in terms of getting into a schedule,” said Justin Fuente, head coach.
After starting last season 2-2, the Hokies reeled off six wins in seven games; the only loss being a last second defeat at Notre Dame. After the disappointing start, they put themselves in a situation where a win against rival Virginia on Thanksgiving weekend would put them in the ACC Championship. Despite dropping that game and another tight one to Kentucky in the Belk Bowl, there was optimism about Virginia Tech football after so much turmoil early in the year. However, the coronavirus pandemic has everything up in the air.
The question running through everyone’s mind is, will there even be a college football season this fall? Even if there is, the amount of time that the coaching staff has to prepare players for the season has been greatly diminished. This leads to many questions about preparation and competition that usually begins in the spring.
“Our kids are traditionally here all summer working out, and the day we start fall camp they’re in great shape. Having a little bit of time to get them into shape and ready for the first game would be great,” Fuente said. “I’d like to have as much time as possible. If we had to do it in a month and the alternative was not doing it at all, I think we could find a way to make it work.”
Spring practice being cancelled has shortened the team’s time on the field ahead of the season and clouded expectations for the year. With Justin Hamilton taking over as defensive coordinator and multiple new position coaches entering the fold, the defense would have liked as much time as possible to adjust before the season. Now, it’s possible that the team could only have a month of practice before kickoff against Liberty, and that remains a large concern in Blacksburg.
“The first thought that I had was about our defense. We have a new defensive coordinator and we have several new coaches on the defensive side of the ball,” Fuente said. “Certainly, there are other issues when it comes to our team and development, but my first thought immediately went to defensively, the fact that we were going to miss out on those opportunities to implement the scheme and also build that relationship with a group of new coaches.”
The good news on the defensive side of the ball is that most starters are returning, and there shouldn’t be too much shifting of the rotation. Reggie Floyd was the only senior on the defense, and Devon Hunter is currently slotted to replace him. In that case, the defense is well out in front of the offense. If Hamilton can move quickly in installing his system and terminology, the defense has a lot of chemistry and momentum coming off of last season.
Offensively, there was going to be plenty of competition in the spring and throughout the summer that now has to be pushed to the fall. Almost every position on offense will have starting and rotational spots up for grabs.
Tight end seems solid despite Dalton Keene’s decision to declare for the NFL Draft. Junior James Mitchell is poised to break out after a great sophomore year while splitting snaps with Keene. Also, sophomore Nick Gallo has been touted as another future star at the position for the Hokies. Those two will undoubtedly be key contributors for Tech, but the rest of the offensive is less clear.
The good news is that at quarterback, running back and along the offensive line, there isn’t an issue of depth. If possible, the Hokies seem to have too many good options on the line and in the backfield, which leads to competition for those few starting spots.
At quarterback, Hendon Hooker had great success after taking over for Ryan Willis. With a 6-2 record as a starter, Hooker is certainly the favorite to be under center in 2020.
However, the highly recruited Quincy Patterson looked solid in his limited work last year with his overtime performance against North Carolina and gutsy effort at Notre Dame. Finally, don’t forget about Braxton Burmeister. The transfer from Oregon was ranked higher than Hooker coming out of high school by 24/7 Sports and will get his fair chance at the job as well.
“Quarterback gets talked about all of the time, but it’s across the board. I promised these kids a chance, so we give them a chance,” Fuente said. “You can tell pretty early that some of them aren’t ready, or aren’t up to the level of the other guys. I don’t know how it would have played out, but that’s how we would have started across the board.”
Whoever is under center will have an embarrassment of riches on the line in front of him. With Brock Hoffman eligible and young players like Bryan Hudson, Luke Tenuta and Doug Nester having a year under their belt, the Hokies line will improve once again. That doesn’t even include returners Christian Darrisaw, Lecitus Smith, Silas Dzansi, T.J. Jackson and Austin Cannon. The Hokies could almost have two full starting lines with the group they have. This competition will have to move very quickly with so many contenders for so few spots. Expect a lot of rotation up front early in the year as the staff tries to find the best five guys.
Running back could be the most interesting competition ahead of this season. Keshawn King is returning along with Jalen Holston, who is recovering from an injury that cost him most of the 2019 season. The wild cards will be transfers Khalil Herbert and Raheem Blackshear. The former Jayhawk, Herbert, is a graduate transfer and will almost certainly see a large role. Blackshear on the other hand is still looking to get immediate eligibility. JUCO transfer Marco Lee is also in the mix.
This stoppage should benefit King and Holston, who have been in the system before and have proven their ability to produce for the Hokies. Herbert and Blackshear will not have as much time as they thought to prove their worth, but will definitely be worked into the rotation and play a large role in the backfield.
“We’ll have to get [the running back position] pared down pretty quickly. You won’t have the extra 15 practices or whatever it is traditionally is to get it down,” Fuente said. “So, we’ll have to find a way to get through it quickly. It’s a challenge, but it’s something that we’ll have to find a way to get done.”
The one position that is extremely thin for Tech is wide receiver. Besides junior Tre Turner and sophomore Tayvion Robinson, the group is a relative unknown. After Damon Hazelton, Jacoby Pinckney and Hezekiah Grimsley transferred, some less experienced players will be forced to step up.
This could come from redshirt sophomore Kaleb Smith, who saw success early in the season, or redshirt freshmen Jaden Payoute and Elijah Bowick, both of which were highly recruited. All three will have to step up in the rotation because Turner and Robinson can’t do it all themselves.
This is unprecedented territory, and hope about the team has turned into some concern. Before the outbreak, there were plenty of questions about the Hokies lineup, and now those decisions must be made much quicker than anyone wanted.
“We were going to put the ball down and let them go take reps,” Fuente said. “I’m sure it would have gotten whittled down quickly. I promised these kids opportunities to compete for jobs at every position. I think that’s fair.”