More than once in August and September, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente talked about needing to “play it by ear” when it came to preparations for a football season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was an approach born out of the need to remain flexible as his roster stayed in a constant state of flux because of coronavirus issues and injuries. For a while, it seemed like Virginia Tech would weather the troubles after jumping out to a 2-0 start and persevering to get to 4-2, but it didn’t last into the back half of a season that went sour and ended with Tech spiraling to a 5-6 record.
Now, with its first losing regular season since 1992 in the books and what was the nation’s longest streak of seasons (27) with bowl appearances gone, uncertainty prevails. Fuente will be back for his sixth season as Tech’s coach, but what will his team look like after several players make eligibility decisions and defect via the NCAA transfer portal?
“This was obviously hard on everybody,” Fuente said regarding how the season ended. “I felt a special sense of camaraderie for making it through it. I think about my time in this business – the ups and downs. I hear people talk about golf and say it’s a humbling sport. You can hit one right down the middle of the fairway and hit your next shot out of bounds pretty easy. This is a humbling profession, too. You think you got things figured out, or you think you know what you are doing, and some things happen and it kind of slaps you in the face a little bit.”
Fuente will have a lot of questions for which he’ll have to find answers if he’s to make it to a seventh season at Tech.
With quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson moving on to other schools via the transfer portal (Patterson has already relocated to North Dakota State), is Braxton Burmeister ready to be Tech’s full-time starting quarterback? Will Tech do some exploring of its own in the portal for quarterbacks?
Can offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen and defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton take significant steps forward after a challenging season?
How does Tech replace ultra-productive running back Khalil Herbert, safety Divine Deablo and left tackle Christian Darrisaw?
Will defensive linemen Jarrod Hewitt, Emmanuel Belmar and DaShawn Crawford, wide receivers Changa Hodge and Evan Fairs, cornerback Devin Taylor, linebacker Rashard Ashby, punter Oscar Bradburn and kicker Brian Johnson – all seniors this season – decide to return for the additional season of eligibility the NCAA granted all players this season?
As one of just 24 Football Bowl Subdivision programs to play 11 or more games this season, there is indeed something to be said for Tech simply making it through a full slate of games. Tech had to endure roster management issues all season, including a season-high 23 players out for the season-opening win against North Carolina State.
Even in the final game – a 33-15 win against Virginia that snapped a four-game skid skid and brought the Commonwealth Cup back to Blacksburg after a one-year absence – the Hokies were missing 16 players. Citing the considerable difficulties of making it through the season, Fuente announced last week his players had voluntarily opted to withdraw from bowl consideration.
“My teammates are very resilient and I appreciate every single one of them, especially (U.Va. game) week to go through it all,” Deablo said after the win against U.Va. “We said we were going to go out there and play (the U.Va.) game for the seniors. ... They poured their heart out on the field and I appreciate them.”
While the win against U.Va. may have felt somewhat redemptive, it didn’t negate what were often unsightly losses:
A 56-45 loss at UNC, where Tech surrendered 399 rushing yards.
A 38-35 loss to Liberty that featured a timeout by Fuente with eight seconds left that wiped away what would’ve been a 59-yard blocked field goal return for touchdown by Jermaine Waller and setup Liberty’s game-winning 51-yard field goal.
A 25-24 loss to Miami in a game Tech led by 11 points late in the third quarter.
Losses at Pittsburgh and against Clemson in which Tech wasn’t competitive in the second half of either game.
Despite Tech not being able to finish with as much success on the field as it had when it started the season, players insisted there were no signs of quitting during game-week preparations – perhaps an encouraging sign Fuente and his staff were able to keep players engaged.
“Just being around the guys in the locker room, that quit mentality is not in them, that give up mentality is not in them,” Herbert said. We’ve had a rough go, like I said, but we fought through. ...I never had that thought in my mind.”
Norm Wood, 757-247-4644, email@example.com