After beating Duke and moving to 2-0 on Saturday, the story of Virginia Tech football has finally shifted back to the field. However, as shown by the 21 missing players and two missing coaches in Durham, the Hokies still have to be vigilant against another COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m not a complainer, and I’m very grateful for what we’ve got and the people that we’ve got working around us and the way the kids are responding,” Head Coach Justin Fuente said. “It’s just a little bit of weight around you 24 hours, seven days a week. You have to find a way to just make it to breakfast.”
‘Make it to breakfast,’ is a line that the Hokies have adopted from a Navy SEAL that visited the team during fall camp. Referencing his grueling training, he said that his mindset was to just make it to breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, and start over the next day. Tech has latched onto this as they try to navigate through the season and the pandemic.
“We’ve taken the mantra of just trying to make it to breakfast and take it one step at a time and control what we can control,” Fuente said. “I know our players are tired of hearing that, but it’s the absolute truth, we have to do the best we can to control what we can control and just make it to breakfast.”
Early on in the season, it seemed like the focus was to just make it to gameday. Two weekends in a row, the Hokies or their opponent were unable to meet that goal. However, now it looks like Tech may, at the very least, be through the worst part of their COVID-19 issues.
“We had a big wave several weeks ago that obviously put our first game in jeopardy,” Fuente said. “Now, I don’t feel like, and things can change, I don’t feel like it’s the same big, sweeping numbers.”
Although the large outbreak may be gone, the Hokies still must try to avoid small flare-ups that could have a significant impact on the field.
Tech had one of these last week as its defensive backfield was left bare by the coronavirus. The top four cornerbacks on the depth chart, as well as senior safety Divine Deablo, were all sidelined this past weekend forcing the Hokies to go with a much less experienced group.
“This outbreak was more concentrated when it came to position, and that’s what scares you,” Fuente said. “Above all is player safety, but in terms of fielding a football team, it can get so concentrated that it can really put your team in jeopardy. We were really on thin ice in the secondary this past week. Hopefully, it gets better as the week goes on.”
The situation was compounded with both coaches in the secondary also missing Saturday’s game. Defensive coordinator and safeties coach Justin Hamilton as well as cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith, who called plays against North Carolina State, were not on the sideline in Durham.
Hamilton has now missed two straight games and still has not made his debut as Bud Foster’s successor, and it is unclear when he will be allowed back in the building.
“I do see him every day in our staff meetings, and he can still hold position meetings. Obviously, he still has access to the film from practice and is able to game plan,” Fuente said. “He’s doing it from home with a brand-new baby, so I’m sure it’s a stressful time for everyone in that house, but he’s still intimately involved with what’s going on, but from a distance.”
With Hamilton missing, the Hokies have had to turn to new faces to lead the defense early on in the season and have had plenty of success. Missing their leader, the Hokies’ defense has 13 sacks in two games and has been extremely impressive considering the circumstances.
A lot of the credit should go to the younger, less experienced coaches stepping up when the team need them.
“It’s just a great example to young coaches everywhere about trying to prepare like a coordinator,” Fuente said. “Just because that may not be your title, you may be a graduate assistant or an on-field coach or off-field coach, whatever your role is, you have to try to prepare every week like you’re the coordinator.”
While it does look like the Hokies have the end in sight when it comes to their COVID-19 issues, that can all change with just some bad results. Those results could come as late as the morning of a game.
“The Friday tests we usually get late Friday night, early Saturday morning. It’s a pretty quick turnaround. This past Friday, it was Friday evening,” Fuente said. “The week before, it was pretty late Friday night. As the week goes on, we know the return dates from the guys from the previous tests in our medical people’s conversation with the health department.”
The Hokies were tested today and will be tested again on Wednesday and Friday before suiting up to face North Carolina on Saturday. This week will be crucial if the Hokies want to finally move past all of the problems that COVID-19 has caused over the past month.
Despite all of the adversity that the Hokies have faced this season, their record stands at 2-0. Now, Tech looks to get closer to full strength and continue its success on the field.
“If the games had been 10 or 14 points different and maybe we’re on the wrong side of the ledger, I still think I’d feel the same way about, not just our team, but how our support staff has gone about trying to help these kids,” Fuente said.