The college football landscape drastically changed this past week when the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their football seasons for the fall. However, Virginia Tech and the ACC are still slated to play, with the season opener against NC State less than one month away.
As a result, the Hokies are rolling through fall camp, having completed their fourth practice on Friday.
“They’ve been productive and good given the circumstances,” head coach Justin Fuente said during a Zoom call with reporters after the practice.
In the midst of the uncertainty there have been no additional opt outs from the roster following the decision by Caleb Farley at the end of July. On the same front, one crucial playmaker for Virginia Tech may not be suiting up in the fall for different reasons.
Fuente received news on Thursday that Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear’s NCAA waiver request was denied.
“We were shocked and saddened by that,” Fuente said. “Raheem was shocked. I feel like our administration feels like we have a very strong case. We’re going to absolutely appeal that and see if we can make any headway there.”
In a day and age where waiver requests are granted at the drop of hat, the Hokies have had their fair share of issues with the entire process. Last year, Brock Hoffman made national headlines when the NCAA denied his waiver request, even given the reasoning of moving closer to his sick mother. Similarly, Braxton Burmeister’s waiver was denied last year, a rare sight to see for a transferring quarterback.
Virginia Tech is in the process of appealing the NCAA’s decision.
“That comes through the administration and compliance,” Fuente said. “They feel good about our stance. They were surprised. I’m cautiously optimistic they can turn it around in relatively short order.”
The potential loss of Blackshear forces the Hokies to lose out on another explosive player at their disposal. The 5-foot-9, 192-pound running back and wide receiver appears to be a player who would be tailor made to operate in space in Fuente and Brad Cornelsen’s offense.
“I’ve only seen him practice four times, but he’s a pretty remarkable talent,” Fuente said. “There’s probably four to five positions on either side of the ball that he could play. He is talented and highly intelligent and really skilled.”
Position Change for Barno
Fuente also announced in his opening statement that redshirt junior Amare Barno has switched positions from the backer linebacker spot to defensive end.
“He’s been there for two practices now,” Fuente said. “Seems to be taking to it very well. Obviously has a lot to learn, but I think he has a chance to have success there. He was a willing participant in that.”
Virginia Tech is hoping it can replicate the success of Farley and Divine Deablo, who also underwent position changes and became key cogs in the defense. Barno’s 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame makes him an ideal candidate for Bill Teerlinck and Daryl Tapp’s defensive line unit, especially with the precedent they’ve put on getting bigger and longer at those spots.
Defensive end TyJuan Garbutt has not been at camp due to a personal family matter, which could’ve played a role in moving Barno now.
“We have this great kid who works his tail off and everybody loves and we want to see him get a chance to have success,” Fuente said. “We feel like a position move is going to give him the best chance. For Amare, I thought it was fantastic the way he went about it. He listened. He called home and he came to visit with me about it. He trusted us and trusted the process. He’s gone about it with a great attitude. I said it last night in the team meeting, I think he’s gotten better every period of practice, not just every practice. We’ll see where that leads.”
Wide Receiver Room Beefed Up
Following the departure of Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley, Phil Patterson, and Jacoby Pinckney from last year’s roster, the wide receiver position was lacking depth heading into the 2020 campaign. Fuente and Co. did their part to add to the unit this past week with the addition of Changa Hodge, a transfer from Villanova.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound wideout tallied 65 catches for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior with the Wildcats. The 13 touchdowns were the sixth most in the FCS.
“We needed to shore that room up,” Fuente said. “Changa hasn’t been on the field for us. You can imagine the protocols he has to go through in order to make it to working in large groups. Not just getting to school and the paperwork in that, but COVID and those protocols, so he’s not on the field. I feel good about it.”
Another player on the outside who could see a huge increase in playing time is redshirt freshman Jaden Payoute.
“I start to see Jaden Payoute out there and I get really excited about the progress he’s made, and he’s still learning,” Fuente said. “He’s working incredibly hard and he’s got talent. He’s grown by leaps and bounds without even the benefit of a spring practice. I get to feeling pretty good about that group when they’re good and healthy and what they can do there.”
Payoute, the second-highest rated recruit from the 2019 class, comes from L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield where he played quarterback. As a result, it’s taken him a little longer to learn the intricacies of the position, but day-by-day the pieces of his game are starting to come together.
“There’s an element of playing wide receiver that he hasn’t really done,” Fuente said. “He played quarterback in high school. He doesn’t have it all figured out, but he’s made huge strides in that direction. The nuances or the ability to play fast. That’s what gets some young players, they can run fast and they can draw what they’re supposed to on the board, but playing fast and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, that’s coming around for Jaden, which is pretty exciting.
“His testing numbers in terms of lifting have skyrocketed. He’s going to be a really, really strong wide receiver with great explosiveness.”
Offensive Line Continues to Impress
It seems to be a recurring theme every year that this is the year that Virginia Tech’s offensive line comes into its own and really makes a distinct mark game after game. That theme will continue into the 2020 season as well, and there’s evidence to show it might be true this time.
When asked to name a position group that has impressed him the most through four practices, Fuente was quick to name the offensive line.
“I still feel good about our offensive line,” Fuente said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t feel good about the tight ends or the defensive line when we get those guys all sorted out. Just feel like we have some really quality depth up front. That group is pretty talented.”
The Hokies return nine offensive linemen who started at one point during the 2019 campaign, and that doesn’t even include Hoffman, who seems like a sure bet to start at one of the interior offensive line spots. The maturity from such a young but experienced group should pay dividends throughout the year.
“Doug Nester no longer looks like a freshman,” Fuente said. “He looks like an adult. Luke Tenuta no longer looks like a baseball player. He looks like a starting right tackle in the ACC. Getting Hoffman out there certainly adds something. [Bryan] Hudson was a little developed already as a freshman. He’s a big, strong kid. I haven’t even gotten to the older players in [Christian] Darrisaw and Lecitus [Smith]. Those young guys don’t look like young guys anymore.”