Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and in a rarity, Virginia Tech football will not be a part of the holiday or weekend. With the Hokies scheduled for a bye week, the fans, coaches and players can kick back and enjoy Thanksgiving with family while watching other football programs.
It does leave the question though of how head coach Justin Fuente would handle the impending holiday with no scheduled game. In the midst of COVID-19 and the potential of it being spread through travel, it begged the question of if Fuente would allow his players to return home for Thanksgiving.
“I’m not going to lock them up,” Fuente said. “We all understand what we’re dealing with. These kids have already sacrificed a tremendous amount. I’m not sure anybody knows, unless you’re on the inside, what these kids have been through.
“I’m going to encourage them to understand the importance of how they act, what they do and what they’re around. I’m not going to force them to stay here or to go home. They understand what we’re dealing with, and in my mind they’ve sacrificed plenty. They deserve the opportunity, if they’re within the region and they can do it safely, to go home.”
It’s a relief for a lot of the players who have stuck through the grind of nine consecutive games. Does it worry some players of the potential threat, though?
“To be honest with you, I’m not too worried because the majority of the team already had [COVID],” safety Divine Deablo said. “There’s only a few guys who haven’t. We should be fine. I’ll leave it at that.”
“I think they’ve relayed the message to us of making sure we’re doing the right things,” tight end James Mitchell said. “I have no intentions of doing anything while I’m home. I just want to go home and spend time with my family, so I’m pretty good to go.”
Here are some other takeaways from Tuesday’s media opportunity with the players.
Rest and Reprieve with the Bye Week
Fuente emphasized that the bye week would largely be used to help the players that have played large portions of the season recover. So far through Tuesday’s practice, that certainly seemed to be the case.
The players who talked to the media all mentioned that they took part in individual drills and reps before sitting on the sideline for the latter half of Tuesday’s practice.
“It’s definitely been a mental grind kind of just pushing through,” center Brock Hoffman said. “Guys getting pulled out there in practice, Friday night at the hotel. Just part of this 2020 season. We’re getting here at the end stretch of it, so we just have to keep pushing forward.
“Me and a lot of the guys on the team take a lot of time outside of practice, outside of our schoolwork and stuff to try to recover our bodies and push it forward. It’s nice to have a little break right here around the holiday.”
The open week has given some of the younger players the reps and a chance to prove themselves moving forward. It’s also opened the door for the veteran players who are resting to still be engaged as an extension of the coaching staff on the sideline.
“I was out there coaching a little bit today,” Deablo said. “Safeties especially like to come to me and ask me about certain defenses. It’s a good feeling knowing that I can help these guys. Same way that Terrell Edmunds and Isaiah Ford did for me back when I was here, so I’m glad I can be that guy for them.
Third Down Difficulties
One of the common themes over the last two losses where the offense has sputtered has been a failure on third down conversions. In those two games, Virginia Tech converted 9-of-28 third downs (32.1 percent), a clip that makes it extremely difficult to sustain drives.
So what has been the issue in those situations?
“There are just a few little things here and there, whether it’s a missed assignment or the wrong technique,” Mitchell said. “There are just small things that we haven’t been doing all of the time that we have to get cleaned up. There’s really nothing bad that’s been going on, but we have to get the little things cleaned up to get those conversions. We got down into third and fourth and shorts and we have to convert those to win.
“When teams are gearing up to stop us in the run and we don’t do everything the way it needs to be done, things like that are going to happen. We’re going to get stuffed on third-and-short. When teams start gearing up for the run, we have to make sure that everything is clean and precise, that way we can still block it and execute everything the right way.”
The play calling specifically in the short-yardage situations has particularly drawn the ire of Hokie fans. It’s almost all too predictable that the quarterback power is the play call of choice in those scenarios, a play that Fuente insisted has worked throughout “the history of time” in his postgame press conference on Saturday.
Hoffman isn’t as concerned with the play call as much as the offensive line not being able to come through in the third-and-shorts.
“You’re going to get short yardage situations, game-on-the-line type things. We just have to execute the play that’s called,” Hoffman said. “As the offensive line we pride ourselves in running the ball and being physical. Not getting those situations is frustrating, but we just have to get back to it.”
As much as the fanbase is frustrated with the results recently, the players taking the field are up in arms as well and not taking the recent defeats lightly. All that matters now is what the team does with that pent-up anger.
“Obviously with a little bit of a losing streak on, we’re frustrated,” Hoffman said. “Coach [Vance] Vice and the rest of the staff has told us we need to take that frustration and turn it into focus. Kind of aim our mindset at this next game.”
During a skid like this, it’s easy to wonder how the psyche of the team has been affected. However, Fuente and the players today stressed that no one has talked about opting out or transferring with the prospects looking bleak for the rest of the season.
“This isn’t a case where people aren’t playing hard or people don’t care,” Mitchell said. “We have a team in the locker room that cares, and we want to win.”
“Just focusing on the future and what we can do better,” Deablo added. “Not only getting ready for these next two games, but setting a new standard for next year as well.”
The players would have to be living under a rock to not notice the backlash that Fuente and the coaching staff has received recently. Mitchell says he ignores and scrolls past it on Twitter. Meanwhile, Hoffman shared a message with the fanbase.
“I understand everybody’s frustration with losing games,” Hoffman said. “When we’re winning, everybody thinks it’s all amazing. Obviously with losing, everybody gets frustrated, but there should be no question with this staff. The people in this building, the players in the locker room, we support this staff. We’re going to go out and fight every day for each other, for this staff, for this university. We’re going to go out and continue to play hard and hopefully pull out these wins at the end of the season.”