After missing Virginia Tech's (delayed) season opener against N.C. State, starting QB Hendon Hooker should be back on the field on Saturday.
At least, Justin Fuente was willing to say "I think so," when asked by reporters whether his starter would play any snaps against Duke.
But what form will that take? How many snaps will he play, particularly after Braxton Burmeister and Quincy Patterson looked so sharp against the Wolfpack this weekend? Like so much about this unusual season, that all remains very much up in the air.
"We haven't had him (with the team) for a while," Fuente said during a media availability Monday. "But he's had a really good fall camp, we've been really pleased with him."
Can Fuente shed any light on what "a while" means, exactly?
"No," Fuente said, bluntly.
Fuente confirmed after the 45-24 win over N.C. State that Hooker had been subject to additional testing for health troubles unrelated to Covid-19, but (contrary to the gloomiest predictions on VT message boards) he will still be able to play sometime this year.
As for the rest of the 23 players and two full-time coaches forced to sit out the opener due to Covid concerns, Fuente said the team is "still working on literally a day-to-day basis and trying to do our best."
In particular, he's unsure whether defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton will be able to rejoin the team after his unexpected absence, and he's still tallying up the list of which players will be able to emerge from quarantine or isolation this week. Fuente noted that there are "interviews that go along with these things and more I don't get involved in," so he can't say for certain who will become available against Duke.
But he's hoping that things will at least be easier than last week, when he said "many guys on the offensive side of the ball were out" as he was trying to prepare the team to start the season. That will be especially important because the team will have a standard six days to prepare for Duke, after getting an extra week to study up on the Wolfpack after the UVA game's postponement.
Fuente has to feel good, at least, that his team looked so confident on offense against the Pack, despite all those challenges (to say nothing of Burmeister's mid-game hand cramp). Yet he isn't celebrating the team as an offensive juggernaut just yet.
"We had them pinned down pretty well in terms of what they were doing schematically," Fuente said. "We got the ball to the unblocked hat a couple times and made people miss, and it led to some explosive plays...but it's not going to look like it looked last week (against Duke)."
Don't Sleep on Duke
The Blue Devils haven't exactly looked dominant in their first three games, all losses, but that did not stop Fuente from singing Duke's praises Monday.
In particular, Fuente cautioned that Duke is likely to be a handful on defense, arguing that they've been playing at an "extremely high level," even if the 425 yards they're allowed per game might not initially show it.
"They've had some issues turning the football over and put the defense in some difficult situations, but they have some excellent players on that side of the ball," Fuente said. "This is a group that is disciplined, gap sound and that is physical."
It's not unusual for David Cutcliffe to earn hosannas from his fellow head coaches, given his reputation among his peers, but Fuente insists that anyone expecting an easy game against Duke should look beyond their record (which includes double-digit losses to Notre Dame, Boston College and UVA).
Fuente points out that the Devils had a lead against UVA late in the third quarter and was driving in Cavalier territory before a trick play went awry, with a wide receiver pass getting intercepted and handing UVA the momentum it needed for a fourth-quarter comeback. Absent that, he said Duke could easily be entering the game in a very different position.
Perhaps Fuente is a bit scarred, still, from Duke's 45-10 beatdown of the Hokies in Lane Stadium last year, but he believes Tech's first road game of the year will be a challenge on defense.
"They've got points they've left on the field," Fuente said. That is undoubtedly true, considering Duke is averaging 13 points a game so far.
He's particularly impressed with QB Chase Brice, the Clemson transfer who has managed two touchdowns and six interceptions to start the year, dubbing him "a talented, strong kid that can deliver the ball all over the place."
"I haven't seen a throw the guy can't make," Fuente said. "It's only a matter of time before he finds his stride."
But an even bigger challenge still may be Tech's first team travel in the Covid era, with Fuente noting that his operations squad is still hard at work figuring out the safest way for the team to head to North Carolina, and even how best to stay in a hotel safely.
"It's just not the same," Fuente said. "You used to just pick up your sandwich and get on the bus."
Some Talented Transfers
Twitter was briefly abuzz Sunday with photos of center Brock Hoffman puffing on a victory cigar following the win over the Wolfpack — but Fuente said he didn't even hear about it until late Sunday night.
Still, he can't exactly be surprised by Hoffman's preferred style of celebration, given his relatively advanced age for a college football player.
"Man, you must have a mature team or an older team if they've got a cigar in the locker room," Fuente joked.
Fuente suspects that maturity stems from his success landing players on the transfer market in recent years. It's been a bumpy road for some, like Hoffman, in actually securing eligibility but Fuente believes the team's careful due diligence has helped the Hokies land some important contributors over the years.
"I don't know that anyone's brought in better and higher character kids than we have," Fuente said. "I'm talking about high-end individuals who are doing more than just contribute on the field for our program."
Of course, the transfer did pretty well on the field as well. Besides Burmeister, RB Khalil Herbert shined with 104 yards on just six carries. And Fuente believes Hoffman earned that stogie too.
"He was playing against their best player in (DT) Alim McNeill, and I really felt like he was up to the challenge," Fuente said.
On the defensive side of the ball, Fuente also got solid contributions from transfer CB Devin Taylor (helping to fill in for CB Jermaine Waller, who Fuente said should return soon while dealing with a non-Covid related injury). But DE Justus Reed was the highlight, with his two sacks to steady the defensive line.
"I've seen our tight ends try to block him sometimes in the run game," Fuente said. "And we're pretty decent at tight end and I've seen him be able to lock some of those guys out and get rid of them."