In 2016, the Hokies looked tantalizingly close to beating Clemson in the ACC title game, generating plenty of optimism about Justin Fuente's future. In 2017, Tech looked a bit further away from the Tigers, dropping a two-score game with College GameDay in town, but nonetheless appeared a promising ACC contender for years to come.
So what is there to make of a dispiriting, 35-point loss to cap a four-game losing streak in 2020? Many have posited that it's the clearest evidence yet that Fuente's program has regressed from those halcyon days at the start of his tenure.
But, despite all that, the head Hokie remains convinced that he has things headed in the right direction.
"I can't tell you I feel awesome because of the short-term results we've gotten," Fuente told reporters Monday. "But in terms of a long-term basis and how our kids are performing in their classroom and the community...I couldn't feel better about where we're going and where we're headed, even though we're here in the middle of a tough stretch."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fuente is trying to put a positive spin on the last few weeks. Sure, a four-game losing streak is tough, but he observes that two of those losses were "heartbreakers." It's a bit harder to explain away the Pitt loss, but Fuente sees plenty of positives in the Clemson game too, considering "we came in at home against the No. 3 team in the country, we're right in it in the middle of the game and then we had some of the weirdest things I've ever seen occur."
Certainly, the Hokies couldn't expect that they'd lose their starting quarterback, Hendon Hooker, after the very first drive of the game due to muscle spasms tied to the cold temperature. Even still, Braxton Burmeister proved an able replacement, until he too was forced to leave with a leg injury, forcing Knox Kadum into the game.
Fuente said if the team had been unlucky enough to see Kadum get hurt as well, he would've turned to an emergency option: TE James Mitchell, who played QB in high school. Of course, Fuente noted that Mitchell "doesn't know he's the emergency QB."
"We probably would've just put James back there and had him hand the ball off," Fuente said. "We would've been past the point of being able to conduct a football game."
Fuente's point is: despite all that chaos, his team played a competitive half of football against the Tigers. The wheels came off eventually, but he was pleased that "we were a much faster football team than we were two weeks ago," posting a promising defensive performance (albeit briefly) against a juggernaut like Clemson.
"Our guys have been great," Fuente said. "I'm as proud of them as I've been any group."
'Get that thing back'
So what will all that mean against Virginia? Fuente is certainly hopeful it bodes well for the Hokies reversing this losing skid and winning a rivalry game.
He fully expects that both Burmeister and Hooker will be available at QB. The question is which one will actually get the start, especially because Fuente said he can't be sure how Hooker will recover.
"I've never seen that before, I don't know that our medical staff has ever seen that," Fuente said. "So we're going to try to do everything we can to take care of him moving forward. Obviously I anticipate this Saturday night will be chilly...The guy had some issues with being cold, so we've got to find ways to help him out."
Whoever starts at QB should have some opportunities to exploit against a UVA defense that is missing several prominent contributors, most notably OLB Charles Snowden. Fuente admitted that he'll be glad not to be playing him this year, but cautioned that the Hoos have compensated well for his absence.
"They've always been a versatile defensive scheme," Fuente said. "They have a personnel group that they've gone to, a little bit like an offense might, to get their best people on the field...They've just always been able to go with the flow personnel-wise."
Offensively, Fuente said UVA QB Brennan Armstrong reminds him of Bronco Mendenhall's old BYU protege, Taysom Hill, which will present plenty of problems for the defense. And the Hoos have certainly been hot recently, winning their last four games. But Fuente is hoping to win back the Commonwealth Cup, even as the two team's seasons seem to be heading in different directions.
"I believe previous outcomes have very little effect on future events," Fuente said. "But we know we have our work cut out for us to go try and get that thing back."
Senior Day...Sort Of
Saturday will technically be Senior Day for the Hokies: kind of. A lot of the emotional resonance that normally follows the last game for a class of seniors isn't quite there during Covid times, considering every senior is eligible to return next season.
Fuente said he's spoken with some players already about returning, while others have yet to make a final decision. He was unwilling to name names, however, because "they've still got chances to change their minds" and he didn't want to paint them into a corner.
And Fuente said he would be more than willing to let any senior that wants to go through the Senior Day festivities, such as they are, go through the process and still come back next year.
Big names from Jarrod Hewitt to Divine Deablo to Rayshard Ashby will all have a chance for another swan song in Blacksburg, and Fuente said he would not close the door to anyone returning.
"I think we've got a couple that definitely will come back, a couple that won't and some guys who are going to worry about it when the season's over with," Fuente said. "All are welcome to go through it and all are welcome to come back."
OT Christian Darrisaw may not be a senior, but his soaring draft stock means the UVA game will likely be his last in Blacksburg. And despite a persistent foot injury, Fuente expects "it would take a lot" for him to miss his final game against UVA.
Similarly, Fuente expects Silas Dzansi to be available. He also believes that Brock Hoffman will make an appearance at center again, even though he was benched for Zacariah Hoyt after another costly personal foul.
"I'm going to give Brock an opportunity to get back in there and go," Fuente said. "He's got to play smart football though. Brock knows that. I grabbed him after the game and said, 'Do you understand why? I'm not asking if you like it,' but I asked him if he understood why (he was benched) and he said, 'Yes sir.' Brock has been fantastic in terms of preparation and effort, but we've got to play the right way."
Fuente also expects that Bryan Hudson and Doug Nester could both make another appearance against UVA, after neither played against the Tigers. But Fuente said that shouldn't be taken as a statement on the future of two of the most promising offensive line recruits to join the Hokies in recent years.
"Doug has been hurt and I do think he'll be good to go this week," Fuente said. "Bryan has really been improving. He's maybe the most improved guy from the start of the season to the end of the season. The last couple weeks, not counting the Clemson game, he was getting more and more playing time. Both been really talented and good workers."