Virginia Tech Head Coach Justin Fuente
On the energy and eagerness level of the team going into game week:
Well, they’ve had a little time off so they’re excited to get closer to the game. I think they’ve had enough practice. You reach a point of diminishing returns eventually. Not that we don’t need it, but you just get a little bit tired of it and I think they’ve had about enough of that and they’re ready to get to Friday.
How did the mock weekend go?
Yeah, we take about two days there to go through what our Thursday, Friday and Saturday would be like on a normal week, and it’s designed to get their legs back underneath them a little bit because they don’t have them, it’s just been so much practice time. It’s a little bit more mental work and our guys did it well and they should’ve. We’ve been through it so many times, we’ve got a little bit of an older team. They did a good job kind of helping the young guys see the light and see what they’re supposed to be doing. I hope the young guys, when it gets to Wednesday, Thursday, and ultimately Friday, feel good and know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing.
Thoughts on historical success in week one games:
It’s essentially a preparation model that we had when I was at TCU as the offensive coordinator, and of course, the way fall camp is organized has changed dramatically over the years, so we’ve had to adapt with that. I think we get a lot accomplished with our walkthroughs. It certainly helps us when we have a couple weeks before school starts to just be able to actually be in fall camp and be able to do those walkthroughs. I always like playing the second week of school, too. It always makes me nervous when we play the first week of school, because as we know, there’s a lot going on [during] the first week of school. A lot of extracurricular activities going on [during] the first week of school so always feels better when it’s the second week. I hope it’s because we cover scenarios and situations in all three phases of the game that give our guys a little better understanding of what it’s going to be like. We do some live kicking, which I think has been beneficial to us in the long run. We don’t do a lot of it, but we do some of it and some people don’t.
How the captains were decided:
I just let the team vote. They walk in there one day and we give them a pamphlet and they can vote for four guys, and we put the roster up on the board and let them pick. I don’t give them any direction in terms of whether they play offense, defense, special teams or whether they’re old or young. I just look for the break, you know, where’s the break; If we end with two captains, or three captains, or four. This year we ended up with five because that’s kind of where the natural break came. James Mitchell and Chamarri Conner were guys I would say were kind of head and shoulders above everybody else. And then the next group of three, there was little to no difference with Dax [Hollifield] and the two offensive linemen there with Brock Hoffman and Tyrell Smith, the ageless wonder that is Tyrell Smith. All very deserving and I don’t know that anybody’s surprised by the names but to see James and Chamarri, who are typically more reserved people, be recognized for some leadership characteristics was really nice and it really spoke volumes to those two guys kind of stepping out of their comfort zone and trying to become a little bit more vocal people.
Comparisons between this year’s UNC team to last year’s:
I’m assuming they’re going to look similar. I haven’t seen much of them since the bowl game. I felt like they made big strides on the defensive side of the ball, particularly later in the year. They were dynamic and dangerous on the offensive side of the ball. They lost their leading wide receivers. They had a couple of guys out there that were really good and accomplished and they had two NFL tailbacks. They basically have to replace the receivers and the tailbacks. They have a transfer from Tennessee in there at tailback. They’re pretty good up front. I think maybe their center is the one offensive lineman that didn’t return, but they’ve got a lot of guys back up front. They’re led by their quarterback who is a fine, fine player. Defensively, they didn’t rank probably where they wanted to rank at the end of the year in total defense, but they made strides and improvement and I anticipate they’ll be an improved defensive unit.
How the team can play complimentary football:
It all works together. You have to find a way to play complimentary football and that’s all three phases. That’s downing punts in the red zone and not taking touchbacks, that’s winning the field position battle, that’s fielding punts and all those hidden yardages are huge when it comes to the football game. The offense has to do its part to not just score points, but also to try to negate some of the firepower that we’re going to face from the other team’s offense and it certainly starts with being able to run the football and holding up against the run on the defensive side of the ball.
How can the team match UNC’s physical defense?
If we accept the challenge, we’ll be okay. We should not be surprised by it. Everybody talks about, “well, we scored this many points” and all that stuff, but the bottom line is, when you look at it objectively, the game last year, we held up pretty well up front, but we should’ve been more productive than we were and we should’ve matched the physicality on the perimeter. That challenge has been clearly issued and is a focal point of what we’ll have to do in order to find a way to win.
Fuente and his comfort level with special teams:
Well, we’ll see on Friday how it all goes. We do our best to simulate all that sort of stuff. I’ve been pleased with Peter [Moore] in practice. He punted a little bit for us last year, which is good, so this won’t be his first game. Romo’s a seasoned veteran. He’ll handle kickoffs and field goals and he’s played in big games, and he’s filled in at punter for us as well in the Notre Dame game a couple years ago when Oscar [Bradburn] hurt his groin in warm-ups. We’ve got good experience there.
How eager are the guys to put new film on tape?
I think on the defensive side of the ball, we’re anxious to prove that we’re a better defense than what we showed [last year]. You know, part of that is that we had numerous guys out and we got kind of the normal names that are going to be taking the field. I think all those guys are anxious to show that they can go play and they can go battle against a top flight offense.
Have you seen that angry running style/attitude from Jalen Holston?
I have. He’s been very productive in his time throughout fall camp. He’s a very well-rounded running back in terms of understanding protections and being able to do things. He’s productive on special teams. This is a good football player. He probably hasn’t had as many carries as he wanted over his career so far, [but] part of that is that he’s been a little bit of a victim of circumstance, quite honestly. He was going to play a big role for us two years ago and broke his leg in the opener, and then last year with Khalil [Herbert]. We hadn’t practiced enough, we didn’t really know what we were going to see with Khalil and then he kind of burst on the scene the very first week. He [Holston] has had a great offseason and a really good fall camp. That’s the way he’s got to play when the ball’s in his hands to be productive.
Has the heat helped the team condition better?
I think it’s very beneficial. I’ve essentially lived my whole life in hot places and have been acclimated to it and we’ve always trained in it, and I think it’s benefitted us. A couple years ago when we opened up at Florida State, I was scared to death about it because it just does not get that warm here and we we’re going to play on whatever day it was, August 31st or September 1st, down there in Tallahassee and I was scared to death. We made it a huge point of emphasis as we went through the summer and tried to do some things to simulate that the best we could, but we’ve gotten some of [the heat] naturally throughout fall camp. I think it’s going to be really good for us. I think it’s going to pay dividends. I do hope it cools down as we approach game day because I think our guys will feel even better because they’ve basically been in the middle of it for the entire fall camp.
On freshman offensive lineman Kaden Moore, who will start at right guard:
This is a guy we’ve been excited about ever since he’s been on campus. Coming into this season, we knew there was going to be an opportunity for a young guy or two to make their way into the starting lineup, particularly on the right side. He’s just worked diligently on some of the technique things that we really felt like he needed to improve on, he’s been more focused. Not that he wasn’t focused, but when you’re redshirting, it’s just different. I think it really occurred to him that he had a legitimate chance to go play and he’s really taken a hold of it and had a really good fall camp.
How do you prepare guys for the Lane Stadium crowd who haven’t experienced it?
There’s not a lot you can do to prepare them for it. It’s a lot worse when you’re the opposing team, obviously, than the home team. Our guys will be pretty excited for this and we got to make sure we stay in the moment and play the next play and all those coach’s cliches that they say all the time. We got to keep our head about us. It’ll be exciting, obviously, getting everybody back there and all that that means to so many people that love and care about Virginia Tech and it’s going to be a special scene.
Fuente explaining the new overtime rules for those who do not know:
Yeah, it’s pretty simple. They’ve shortened the overtime even more, so on the first overtime if you score a touchdown, you can choose to either kick an extra point or go for two. In the second overtime if you score a touchdown, you have to go for two. In the third overtime, it is just going for two, it’s just plays from the three-yard line. They’ve shortened it down quite a bit. There aren’t a lot of rule changes this year, as few as I can remember in a long time. They have several points of emphasis in terms of coaches on the field all that sort of stuff, but they’re back to policing the uniforms and that sort of stuff, which the officials aren’t happy about, but that’s kind of the crux of the new legislation; there’s not a lot this year.
How do you help get ahead of the uncharacteristic plays that typically happen in Week One by watching the early games?
Saturday morning, we practiced and then I brought them up and I said, “I want you guys to go home and go watch the ball games” and I just told them, I said, “you watch, there’s going to be people out there messing things up.” And sure enough, in the middle of the Nebraska-Illinois game, the players are texting me, they’re all in their little group chats texting about the things that happened and that was essentially an even football game. I don’t know how many games either one of those teams are going to win, but just watching the game, it seemed to me they were fairly comparable teams. You take a couple really big mistakes and that ends up being the difference in the game. Nebraska outgained Illinois in that game and lost. One play they had a personal foul on an interception, then Illinois ended up scoring a touchdown on that drive, Nebraska intercepted the ball but there was a roughing the passer called, they had a fumble right before the half that got returned for a touchdown, they had the safety they took on a punt return. Those things happen and you try and do a little preventative maintenance on those things to show your guys like, “you can go win a game this way by being the smartest team.”
Thoughts on the younger pass catchers?
Yeah. I’m excited. You take the two freshmen, Jaylen [Jones] from Richmond and D-Loft [Da’Wain Lofton] from Fort Worth, Texas. These are mature kids. These are kids that came in at semester that have done really well in the classroom, that seem to be able to handle a little bit of the grind that sometimes creeps up on freshmen. They’ve been really productive through camp, they’re very serious. I’m hopeful that they can be productive on special teams and then fill the roles behind some of those older guys that are names that everybody knows. Then Jaden Payoute is the one that just everyone is rooting for because his freshman year, he was learning to play receiver, learning to run off the ball, learning to do some very simple things at a position he had never really played. He was starting to turn the corner there and then got hurt last year in fall camp and missed the entire year. Now he’s back and he’s continuing to work. This is a guy that just wants to do anything to help the football team, whether that’s special teams or covering kicks. He’s been slowed a little bit by a hamstring but he’s getting over that now and back practicing full time. I’m really excited about those guys, not just right now in this moment and not just in the future, but as this season goes along. If those guys can continue to improve, they’re going to continue to find themselves in bigger roles.
Thoughts on Jermaine Waller and Alan Tisdale:
Alan Tisdale has committed himself to his diet in terms of training and offseason. He’s a grownup now, he’s a dad. He has real life responsibilities and he’s conducting himself in that way. It’s helping him be a better football player. Really proud of the progress; it’s part of what makes being a coach really fun, is to see these guys grow up and we were all 18 years old at one time, but now that you get to watch them go into being grownups and that’s what Alan is now. Just really proud of him and the strides he’s made as a player and as a person. And Jermaine, what a rough go he had of it last year and he’s back healthy. He looks great out there. I’m excited to get him, obviously, out there on the field. We’re going to need him to go cover these wideouts that we’re about to go face, but he’s in such a better place from a physical standpoint. He had that foot surgery and it was just really hard for him to get over and then he played in this game and then we were about one more person away from having to ask for volunteers from the stands to go in there and play. He ended up playing nickel[back], which he’s never played in his life. It was just a really tough situation, so he’s come a long way in a year.
Associate Director of Development for Major Gifts for the Hokie Club, Evan Massengill
Information on the Triumph Together campaign:
With Triumph Together, this is the fourth iteration, like you mentioned. Drive for 25 day started in 2018, two years after Whit [Babcock] and the department announced the Drive for 25 as a way to incorporate our sports-specific beginning and increase our donor membership. In 2019, we went with the Drive for 25 Blitz and in 2020, we did an abbreviated version known as “Jump With Us.” Our best year was the Drive for 25 Blitz, $807,000 raised, 3,100 gifts. This year, we’ve went ahead and put the number out there: we want to be above a million. The goal’s right there in front of us and we think we can do it. This initiative is the largest thing we could do to help our support our sport’s operating budgets, from recruiting and nutrition to equipment and travel. The first through the third helps make the difference to our student-athletes and helps propel us to a championship brand.
Is the Hokie Club in a good place membership-wise at the moment?
We’re in a good place. We feel like Triumph Together will bring us to right where we need to be on the cusp of 25,000 [members]. The drive year starts over every year, so we’ve got to renew those members, we’ve got to renew all of you folks who continue to give and support Virginia Tech, so March 31 is going to be that date that we’ll circle on the calendar and say we hit 25 [thousand], and I’m very confident we’re going to get there because the Hokie Nation is stronger together and that’s kind of why we went with Triumph Together, because we all know that with Hokie Nation there, supporting our student athletes, we can get there and we can be as strong as we can be together.
Thoughts on the momentum of the Hokie Club as far as sports-specific giving:
We’d really like to see our sports bump their budgets and help them bump their budgets by 10%. That’s the goal, so if we can bump all our sports budgets by 10%, we really feel we’ll be competing for ACC and National Championships in our Olympic sports. There are a multitude of ways to help. If you already support the Hokies year-round and you’re already giving, you can still sign up to be an ambassador at HokieClub.com/Triumph.
How awesome is it for the UNC game to be sold out this weekend?
I can’t tell you how impressed and appreciative we are for everybody here at McClain’s and everybody listening. What you’ve done for our student athletes and the student athlete experience at Virginia Tech over the last two years, it can’t be expressed in words. I get emotional just thinking about it so I’m very excited.