Virginia Tech football is getting closer and closer by the day. During Wednesday’s press conference, Justin Fuente named Hendon Hooker as the starting quarterback if the season were to start today, but also noted Braxton Burmeister would have a role in games. Jake Lyman and Chris Coleman covered that topic extensively here and here, respectively.
That wasn’t the only news breaking out of Blacksburg, though. Fuente confirmed the loss of redshirt freshman Jaden Payoute to a leg/ankle injury. Rumors had been circulating for a few days, and Payoute seemed to substantiate those rumblings yesterday when he posted pictures on Instagram in a hospital bed.
“Jaden Payoute did have surgery on his leg and he’ll be out indefinitely,” Fuente said. “It was a hard thing for everybody just because he’s worked so hard and continued to improve. I think he’s a great example of a guy that didn’t have success as soon as he stepped on campus. He didn’t let that deter him. He continued to work hard and was poised to be a huge contributor for us now. I know that will only harden his resolve to continue to work. He’s such a high character kid. He’ll come back as soon as he’s ready.”
It’s evident that Payoute was going to be a key contributor for the Hokies in 2020, but that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. Fuente doesn’t often heap praise on individual players, but he’s brought up Payoute’s name time and time again. Here’s an example of that from a press conference a few weeks back.
“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… 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.”
The last player to receive the same treatment from Fuente was James Mitchell and we saw how that turned out for the tight end in his breakout sophomore season last year. Instead, it will be a devastating loss for the wide receiver room, which will now have to look toward some other options on the outside.
The onus may fall on two transfers, Changa Hodge (6-foot-1, 207) from Villanova and Evan Fairs (6-foot-3, 208) from Kansas.
“I’ve really been pleased with both the newcomers, both Evan and Changa,” Fuente said. “They seem to be picking it up really well and executing at a high level. I’ve been pleased with those guys.”
Tayvion Robinson has also been getting more reps on the outside with the ability to move him there and plug Raheem Blackshear in the slot. Kaleb Smith (6-foot-2, 221) is another player to monitor, especially after looking the part at the beginning of 2019 when he snagged an acrobatic touchdown in the opener against Boston College.
“Kaleb Smith played a little for us last year, particularly early in the year,” Fuente said. “He continues to improve, I continue to keep feeling better about him as an every down player.”
Contact Tracing and the Uncertainty it Presents
The leadup to the 2020 season has been one giant question mark the majority of the way. It’s created growing uncertainty even with the season already started and the Hokies’ first game less than two weeks away.
“It’s a difficult process, but the only thing we can do is control what we can control,” quarterback Hendon Hooker said. “In these circumstances, the only thing you can do is keep your head down and keep striving forward to try to reach your goals. During this pandemic we’re just going to do that, put our head down and keep rolling.
One thing Fuente does know is that the postponement of the previous opener against N.C. State to September 26 may have been a blessing in the disguise.
With the spike of positive tests in Blacksburg and contract tracing limiting a number of Hokies from participating in practices, the head whistle isn’t sure if he would have had enough players ready for the previously scheduled date of September 12, just two days away, for the season opener.
“I don’t know if we would have made it,” Fuente said. “I figured somebody would ask me if we could play today in this deal, and I’m going to tell you I don’t know the answer to that. I did everything in my power to construct a practice where we got something good with the guys we have today.”
With a number of players being forced to miss practices on occasion from the contact tracing, it’s led to some cross-training for certain players in position groups. Some defensive linemen have practiced some reps on the offensive line and vice versa.
“We’ve got probably 10 guys working one side or the other,” Fuente said. “We thought about doing it on a larger scale, but I don’t quite see it being useful. There’s a handful of guys who I think in a short time could be trained to help us out in an emergency on either side of the ball, and those are the guys we’ve focused on.”
These contingency plans are in place and will almost certainly be utilized at some point throughout the season. But what if a position coach or coordinator is forced to miss action with a positive test? Yes, there’s even a plan in place for that.
“What we have is first in line, second in line, third in line,” Fuente said. “There’s all the coaches’ names on it, and it’s kind of like the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, and however that goes down the line of next in power. Obviously we have some young coaches who are very talented and can fill in in a couple positions. I can fill in. I’m pretty versatile, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. We’ve gone through the whole thing.”
With the N.C. State postponement to Virginia Tech’s previous open week, the Hokies would play in 10 consecutive weeks if everything goes off without a hitch. It would be an unprecedented schedule. It’s also a very big ‘if’.
“We’ll see if it happens,” Fuente said after chuckling. “We’ll take it one at a time. There’s always mitigating factors in every season. That’s been multiplied by a thousand now. We’ll see if that’s what happens. We’ll just keep plugging away one by one.”
As the Hokies navigate those thousands of mitigating factors, Fuente speaks glowingly of the way his team has handled everything along the way.
“I just told our football team, I’ve never been as proud of a group of people as I’ve been with these kids, and we haven’t even played a game yet,” Fuente said. “How they’ve handled all the uncertainty, how they’ve handled everything with COVID. To come out and work like they’re working, Im just really proud of so far, and I anticipate that they’ll continue to do it.”
An Unusual but Exciting Opener
With the open week this weekend, Virginia Tech will open the 2020 campaign against Virginia on September 19, getting the chance to return the Commonwealth Cup to Blacksburg sooner than expected. The last time the Hokies opened against the Cavaliers was in 1972.
“Certainly we understand the meaning of this game,” Fuente said. “It means a lot to us. It means a lot to Hokies everywhere. There’s something else in the air obviously when it comes to preparing for this game. The unique situation we’re in has certainly cast a large shadow over our day-to-day operations. I don’t mean that in a negative way, that’s just the elephant in the room every time you turn around. We certainly understand how big the first one is.”
Hendon Hooker was a perfect 6-0 as a starter before the loss in the regular season finale against Virginia. It’s the type of loss that stings and sticks in the back of a competitor’s mind for months.
“It is extra motivation,” Hooker said. “The guys know that it’s a big rivalry and it’s a big game. Just taking it step by step, day by day, and knocking off different things we need to accomplish in the game or goals we like to accomplish or schemes we like to accomplish. We’re just trying to lock in on that. We’re not too into the rah rah right now.”