Football has long been lauded for its contact nature and team camaraderie. Boys became men in the Oklahoma Drill, and players made memories within the confines of a team huddle.
In the year 2020, though, that’s all changing. The coronavirus pandemic has altered the way football looks in the practice setting.
“We have a rule to be arm’s length apart,” said Virginia Tech senior safety Divine Deablo during a Zoom teleconference on Wednesday. “I try to police it myself. Whenever too many people are close together I yell and say, ‘Spread out!’ They usually listen to me. Sometimes they’re too tired to listen, but we’ll get them right.”
That’s the world we live in right now, where players remain ‘arm’s length apart’ at practice the majority of the time. It’s never been that way in the past, and as a result, it’s taken an adjustment period for the Hokies.
“It was definitely hard at first,” Deablo continued. “Nobody was even giving it a thought. We were all lining up right behind each other, but it’s definitely become second nature now.”
“We have hitting drills, and drills that people want to be involved in and get real close that we have to police a little bit more,” junior tight end James Mitchell said. “That was definitely different at first, but now people are starting to get used to it and it’s going to be a necessity for us to be successful this fall on and off the field.”
Schools across the ACC are already having difficulties containing the virus with students returning to campus. UNC already transitioned to fully online classes and suspended all athletic activities until Thursday at 5 p.m. Notre Dame canceled Wednesday’s practice after a spike of positive tests on campus.
It begs the question how the football season could move on if Virginia Tech moved to all virtual classes. Mitchell wouldn’t be opposed to it.
“Actually, it would probably be easier if you think about it,” Mitchell said. “Without students there, we’d kind of be like in our own sort of bubble away from people. I think in a way it would actually be easier to kind of get things done.”
For the time being, Justin Fuente and Co. are proceeding with caution. So much so that the leadership council called a players-only meeting to discuss the seriousness of the situation at hand.
“It was only players, and we were just talking about how serious we have to take this season,” Deablo said. “If we want to play we have to be smart off the field and not just on the field. To be honest with you, I’m not too worried about the older guys. I just had to get the message to the younger guys since this is their first year in college. They may want to have fun, but they’ve got to know that at least for a semester we’ve got to be smart.”
The message was spread that you’re either 100 percent in or don’t even bother showing up. The players even decided on a discipline system to highlight the commitment needed from everyone on the roster.
“It was definitely important especially straight from the fact that it was just the players,” Mitchell said. “I think the fact that it was just the players that held the meeting and conducted the meeting, that they took it real seriously and knew that these older guys wanted to play. We know they want to play.”
In the meantime, Mitchell and the Hokies are hard at work for the upcoming season. With the ACC being one of just three Power 5 conferences still in play, Virginia Tech isn’t taking it lightly knowing the added eyes that could be on its games.
“If we’re playing, we’ve got to be ready and got to be prepared,” Mitchell said. “That’ll just create a bigger stage for us. We’ve got to be prepared for whatever happens.”
Offense Rounding into Form
Hendon Hooker was at the helm for Virginia Tech’s resurgence in 2019 following the Duke debacle. The Hokies averaged 36 points per game in those games that he started.
Still, PFF still ranked Hooker as the eighth-best quarterback in the ACC heading into the season. Some gripes may be fair, but Hooker has continued to quietly lead Virginia Tech’s offense into the 2020 season.
“I would say just the way [Hooker’s] leading right now. That’s the thing that stands out to me the most,” Mitchell said. “He’s really trying to help not just the quarterbacks, but he’s making sure that everybody else is right. He’s a quarterback, so he knows the whole offense. He’s making sure that everybody’s doing their job and everybody’s on point and making sure everybody’s doing the right thing.”
“We definitely have a lot more that maybe didn’t see as much action last year. We’ve got Nick Gallo, Jaden Payoute, Kaleb Smith,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a lot of guys also in the backfield. Got some young guys in the backfield, as well as Marco (Lee), who’s a JUCO transfer. So I think we’ve got a lot of weapons on offense. It’s just getting back into the swing of things where we missed spring ball. But we definitely have a lot of weapons returning.”
Gallo might just be the most intriguing player to follow. Brad Cornelsen showed a liking towards two tight end formations last year once Hooker took the reins of the offense. With Dalton Keene moving onto the NFL, the 6-foot-4, 242-pounder appears poised to become Mitchell’s counterpart.
“He’s a good route-runner,” Mitchell said. “He’s good in the pass game and he’s coming along in the run game as well. He kind of reminds me of how I was, just coming along. I think if we had a spring, it would have helped him even more, but he’s made a lot of progress just so far in the fall. I’m excited to see what kind of season he has this fall.”
Other News and Notes
Several players have been experimenting with the helmet face shields provided by the equipment staff. It’s been an up and down experience for Deablo.
“It started off with a full visor in the bottom half and the top,” Deablo said. “The first couple of days it was good, then it got a little humid and harder to breath and it got a little foggy. Recently they cut part of the bottom part so it still covers the mouth, but there’s more air coming through so I can breathe a lot better. I would advise my teammates and every other team to wear it.”
Mitchell was asked about the opportunity to play Virginia in week two of the season. He grinned the entire time, but didn’t make any bulletin board material.
“Right now we have to worry about NC State,” Mitchell said. “When it gets there, we’ll talk about it then.”