There are still more questions than answers when looking at the upcoming college football season, but Virginia Tech opened camp Friday as the opener against NC State approaches.
“We’ve been pretty restricted with what we’ve been able to do, we’ve had walk-throughs over the last two weeks, but that’s the first time we’ve been with our kids in person,” Fuente said. “It’s not the same, so I think a little bit slower of a camp pace can help us.”
Camp will be longer this year to prepare for the strange season that awaits. This is helpful, as the Hokies were one of the unlucky teams that lost spring practice due to COVID-19 and will have to make up for the lost time.
One of the main focuses of spring practices would have been to address the quarterback competition. Hendon Hooker looks to be the front-runner after turning the Hokies’ season around last year.
However, now-eligible Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister has earned rave reviews during his year in Blacksburg. Quincy Patterson also held his own in tight games against North Carolina and Notre Dame. All three will still get their shot at the starting job over the next few weeks.
“We’ve got some guys with really unique, dynamic skill sets, and there were a lot of ways we could have played with that,” Fuente said. “We missed that opportunity, but we’ll let those guys go compete and give them opportunities to show what they can do, but we don’t have a lot of monkeying-around time.”
Player safety during the age of COVID-19 has been the largest question as the calendar turns closer to opening day. With so much contact during practice and games, football seems like the ideal situation for an outbreak to occur. Setting up protocols to limit the spread will be crucial to keep college football alive this year.
“We’ve changed the way we stretch, and everybody has a gator or a face shield,” Fuente said. “We also have outdoor opportunities which helps mitigate a lot of the risk, but everything from standing in line and we’re trying to get everybody spaced out, but we haven’t practiced yet so I can’t tell you exactly what it looks like.”
Fortunately, in preparation for camp, Tech found that players are in close contact much less than was expected.
“We went back and did some studies from last fall about the actual contact time for certain positions during a two-hour practice,” Fuente said. “I was personally shocked at how low those numbers were.”
With just the football team, basketball teams and other fall sports teams on campus, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively low considering the lack of large gatherings in Blacksburg. However, that all changes over the next two weeks as the rest of the student body starts to trickle back onto campus.
“We’ve talked at length about, if we want to play, then we can’t do things as we’ve always done them,” Fuente said. “If we want to accomplish this, the onus is on us and we have some control over it. We don’t have total control over it, but we need to focus on what we can control and do the best that we can.”
The Hokies roster took a hit last week when star cornerback Caleb Farley decided to opt-out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. He will spend the year preparing for the NFL Draft.
With Farley gone, Tech’s cornerback room goes from strength to possible liability. Jermaine Waller can step up as the top player in the group, but the rest of the group remains unproven.
“I think depth is going to be a huge thing this season,” Fuente said. “We are a little thin at corner and we need Nadir [Thompson] and Brion [Murray} to continue to develop and play well.”
Another piece of Justin Hamilton’s unit could miss this season as well. Defensive end TyJuan Garbutt is not currently with the team due to a family issue and may not join the Hokies at all this fall.
“[Garbutt’s absence] is not COVID-related or discipline-related, this is a personal family matter that he’s having to deal with,” Fuente said. “He’s still on scholarship, and he’s going to school this fall, but I don’t know if he’s going to play.”
Graduate transfer Justus Reed will take on even more responsibility during his lone season in Blacksburg if Garbutt doesn’t play. The former Youngstown State Penguin and Florida Gator had 12.5 sacks last season and now begins his seventh year of eligibility.
“He’s a mature adult, and he’s excited to be a part of this football team,” Fuente said. “We’ve got some young guys at that position that can learn from him.”
Raheem Blackshear is another transfer who could make a huge impact for the Hokies this season, but he is still waiting to see if he’ll be eligible. Blackshear had over 900 yards and six touchdowns during his two seasons with Rutgers.
“We’ve been through this before, but I hope by next week, we’ll know something,” Fuente said. “He’s been fantastic; he’s a great student, a great athlete and has a chance to be a really productive player who can do about anything.”
Fuente also hinted that the Hokies could be in the running for players transferring from FCS schools that won’t play this fall.
Just a few hours after he made his comments, wide receiver Chunga Hodge announced that he would be transferring from Villanova to Virginia Tech. Last season, Hodge put up over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Wildcats and he should help out a thin Hokies receiver room.
The Hokies will look to build on last year’s second-half success, and now they know who they’re going to play.
The ACC built its schedule, and Tech’s slate is highlighted by an early-season Commonwealth Cup battle in Week 2 and a December matchup with the pre-season #1 Clemson Tigers.
“These kids and coaches both become creatures of habit and structure, and I sensed a little more energy,” Fuente said. “There was a lower anxiety level, knowing that there was a name on the schedule and not just a date.”
Just a month before the season begins, no one knows what college football will look like. However, at least for now, Hokies football is finally back.