Fall camp has officially concluded, and Virginia Tech football is less than three weeks away from its first scheduled game of the 2020 season in Lane Stadium against NC State.
The situation is still as precarious as ever, but Justin Fuente’s squad is gearing up and ready to get back between the white lines. As is usually the case, the hopes and dreams of a successful Hokies’ season likely rides on the shoulders of whoever will be the starting quarterback.
Incumbent starter Hendon Hooker returns after leading Virginia Tech to a 6-2 record last year in the games he started. However, the Hokies are in a rare position with three quarterbacks on the roster who all have experience starting a Power 5 football game.
In addition to Hooker, Quincy Patterson exhibited his aptitude at the position after engineering the Hokies in the second half of the thrilling six overtime victory over North Carolina. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound signal caller also nearly pulled off the upset on the road against Notre Dame, though he struggled in the passing game that day.
Meanwhile, Braxton Burmeister transferred from Oregon last year where he made five starts as a true freshman and appeared in four games as a sophomore. Burmeister was a menace on the practice squad last year and has been lauded as one of the fastest players on the team, not just from the quarterback position.
“I’ve been pleased with all of them,” Fuente said. “The three older guys in Braxton, Quincy and Hendon have all made improvements. We’re splitting those [reps] equally. We’ll start to narrow that down. They all bring something to the table. You can see very clearly how you could build whatever you’re trying to do offensively around that person. Different strengths and weaknesses. I think they’ve all made great strides towards improvement, and I’m excited about what they’ve put on film so far.”
While Fuente has yet to name a starter, the lack of a spring practice and the familiarity of the offense with Hooker makes it appear that he’ll likely get the nod for week one.
“I don’t think I’d be truthful if I said we didn’t skip a beat,” Fuente said. “We missed all of spring practice. We had a shortened summer. Our conditioning level is not at the same level that it usually is, and some of our chemistry hasn’t been the same. It’s certainly had an effect on us.
“I think the receivers along with Hendon and the quarterbacks have done a good job. They didn’t start back at zero. They found ways to get good work in when they were allowed to. It hasn’t been as huge of a deal, but certainly losing 15 practices, that’s 15 chances to improve, and losing summertime, we’re not as far along as we usually are.”
Extra Year of Eligibility
Earlier this past week, the NCAA Board of Governors approved a new rule that gives all fall sport athletes an extra year of eligibility regardless of whether they compete this fall or not. It provides some clarity for those athletes who were considering the impact of potentially losing a year of eligibility if the season was canceled halfway through the year.
It also gives Fuente and Co. some comfort knowing redshirts are irrelevant in 2020.
“It’s all hands on deck, basically,” Fuente said with a grin. “I’m not really positive how it’s going to be managed after the semester with mid-term guys and graduates and guys who stay or don’t stay and the long-term ramifications of scholarships for high school players, because everybody is getting it, not just seniors. It’s pretty much a free year. You get to go play. In the short-term, it’s pretty easy. In the long term, it’s going to be interesting to see how we handle it.”
The true freshmen could be the biggest beneficiaries of the new rule. Often there was a balancing act over the last couple of seasons of trying to keep guys under the four-game point to maintain a redshirt. That will be none of that in the 2020 season.
Several freshmen have already proven to the coaching staff to be ahead of the rest of the pack, while special teams play could also see a boost from those freshmen.
“[Defensive back] Keonta Jenkins is one on the defensive side that’s a young player that has shown a lot of promise and ability to pick up things pretty quickly,” Fuente said. “We’ll see as we continue to go through it. [Defensive end Robert] Wooten has gotten a bunch of good work on the defensive side of the ball. He’s a little bit more developed.
“The first level is usually the kicking game. There’s just not as much schematics involved in that. There’s a bunch of guys that I think are going to have to contribute in some way, whether that’s covering a kick or playing on offense or defense.”
John Parker Romo Earns Scholarship
Kickoff specialist John Parker Romo relayed some positive news on Sunday that he had earned a scholarship. The former walk on kicked a touchback on 46 of 69 kickoffs in 2019.
“When we have [scholarships] and people have earned them, we want to reward them,” Fuente said. “I think it speaks to the other guys who have walked onto our program. We have a long history of putting those guys on scholarship. I personally just brought Romo in and sat him down and told him what I’m telling you. You earned this. You can’t change because of this, but I want you to know that I’m not giving you a gift. I’m giving you something you earned.”
While Romo’s booming leg helped the Hokies throughout the year, it was his backup punter duties that impressed Fuente the most. When Oscar Bradburn missed the Notre Dame game with an injury, Romo stepped in admirably and totaled eight punts for an average of 44.25 yards, with two downed inside the 20.
“You think about not just handling kickoffs, but what I think about is the Notre Dame game last year,” Fuente said. “On Thursday Oscar pulls his groin or whatever and Romo jumps in there immediately and doesn’t bat an eye. Pretty awesome job by him.”
News and Notes
• There’s still no update to the appeal process surrounding Raheem Blackshear. It’s been frustrating for everyone involved.
“It seems from the outside to be inconsistent I guess I would say,” Fuente said. “Obviously it’s not handled by the coaches, which is probably a good thing. It’s handled by compliance. I think we all just want clarity on what rules we’re playing by. I think that’s the biggest issue. I’m not saying it’s intentional, it just feels like we’re never really sure how it gets worked out.”
• The returners on the special teams unit are beginning to round into form.
“Tayvion [Robinson] will be the punt returner, but we feel confident that there are some other guys who can work back there,” Fuente said. “Khalil [Herbert] has worked back there, Raheem [Blackshear] has worked back there, Tre [Turner] has worked back there, Changa [Hodge] has worked back there, and a couple other guys who have looked comfortable. At kick returner, if we played tomorrow, Keshawn [King] would be back there, but Raheem has obviously been working back there, too, and we’ll see how all that works out.”
• Illinois State transfer Devin Taylor is in Blacksburg, but he hasn’t been allowed to practice yet. The cornerback has 118 tackles, nine interceptions, and 40 pass breakups over his career.
“He’s in school and he’s good to go, but as you can imagine with COVID, we can’t just bring an outside guy in and jump him in,” Fuente said. “There’s all types of different levels as you essentially assimilate into the group. From the initial COVID test, then you can go in small groups, and a certain period of time passes to larger groups. He has not been out there yet.”