The Hokies managed to pull out a win against Duke even with a badly depleted secondary, but Justin Fuente knows that he might not get so lucky against UNC.
Fuente is, of course, hopeful that he will have some of his starters in the defensive backfield available this week (to say nothing of the defensive coaches guiding the secondary). But just as Tech was surprised to discover that five of its top DBs would be unavailable against the Blue Devils, Fuente is allowing for the possibility that he'll have to get creative again to slow down QB Sam Howell and company.
"I don't feel like it's the same big sweeping numbers [of players quarantined] as before, it's smaller," Fuente told reporters Monday. "This one happened to be more concentrated in terms of position and that's what scares you. It can get so concentrated that it can really put your team in jeopardy. We were really on thin ice there, so hopefully it gets better as the week goes on."
Fuente said he is hopeful that Defensive Coordinator Justin Hamilton and "some players" absent Saturday will be able to return, but he confessed that he's "not exactly positive on the whole timetable right now."
He added that the team receives its final batch of Covid-19 test rules either Friday night or Saturday morning each week, meaning that "we have to play a lot of what ifs and have a plan to be able to field a team based on a variety of varying circumstances." And he said all that difficulty is compounded by not being able to meet in a traditional fashion with his full staff, considering that CBs coach Ryan Smith was also forced to quarantine for the Duke game.
That being said, Fuente quipped that "Sam Howell is a bigger hurdle than Coach Hamilton conducting meetings via Zoom."
Howell has been up and down in his first two games this year —he's completing 65% of his passes, with three touchdowns and interceptions apiece — but Fuente believes he has more than earned the preseason accolades that pegged him as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference (if not the country).
"He took some heavy shots in games and just kept getting back up," Fuente said. "He's just an incredibly accurate passer."
Howell will certainly test Tech's secondary if it's missing players once more, and that is where Fuente hopes that the Hokies can replicate some of their success bringing pressure against Duke. Tech managed a total of seven sacks against the Blue Devils, denying Chase Brice at least some opportunities to pick on inexperienced DBs.
"That was something that we had to have last week: it wasn't an option," Fuente said. "We had to find a way to get some pressure and try to help those guys in the back end."
But Fuente said he didn't want the team to lose focus on UNC's run game, either. The Heels are averaging about 168 yards per game on the ground right now, and if that keeps up, Fuente fully expects that "ultimately gives you the chance to push the ball down the field and have the sort of big plays they're accustomed to."
"We've given up some rushing yards, and part of it is how we're designed right now," Fuente said. "It's going to be important to find a way to try to create pressure for Sam in the backfield when he's throwing the ball but also stay sound in the run game."
At least the admiration seems to run both ways, in what will be a rare battle of two ranked ACC teams.
"They should be a top 10 team," UNC's Mack Brown told reporters. "They are really underrated and that shows you the fallacy of early season ratings."
Herbert's Big Arrival
It seems RB Khalil Herbert's performance in Tech's first two games is part of what so impressed Brown.
"I've never seen anything like that," he said, referring to Herbert's 315 combined yards against Duke and N.C. State.
Certainly, the Kansas transfer has been a pleasant surprise for Fuente as well, who never quite managed to find a true feature back in his four previous seasons in Blacksburg.
Fuente said he remains confident that "we have good guys that can fill in" for Herbert, pointing to Raheem Blackshear and longer tenured Hokies like Jalen Holston and Keshawn King, but he does certainly hope to give Herbert plenty of work to see what he can do.
"Having Khalil back there certainly makes us better," Fuente said. "We're going to be careful about it, but in the first game he only had six carries."
Herbert certainly showed flashes at Kansas — he was the team's leading rusher last year before a misunderstanding between Herbert and the coaching staff sent him looking elsewhere — so Fuente said he had every confidence that Herbert would be able to contribute to the team. But it was Herbert's personality off the field that truly convinced Fuente to take him on.
"It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that he was a guy, from a talent perspective, that can help," Fuente said. "most of our investigation became into Khalil and what was he like, and from every corner of his life people stood on the table and said this is a great young man...so for whatever reason, things didn't work out there but he's been as advertised in terms of quality of person, quality of family, just a great addition on and off the field at Virginia Tech."
His talent will face its toughest test against UNC, however. The Tar Heels are the top run defense in the country at the moment, allowing a total of just 108 yards across their first two games.
"They are extremely impressive there," Fuente said.
No Answers at QB
Herbert may have the starting slot locked down at running back, but QB still sounds like anyone's game.
Fuente said before the Duke game that he expected to give Hendon Hooker some time on the field, but he reversed course Saturday and put the ball firmly in Braxton Burmeister's hands. He's being even more cryptic in the run-up to the UNC game.
"We'll go out there and practice this week and continue to evaluate it and try to make the best decision we can," Fuente said when asked who his starter would be this week.
In the two weeks before the UVA game, Fuente said the choice was clear: "It was Hendon who gave us the best chance to win."
But he said the 2019 starter has "missed time since then," convincing him to give Burmeister a shot. The results have been mixed: he was effective against N.C. State but more inconsistent against Duke, completing just nine of his 25 passes but still running for 64 yards and two scores.
Hooker has had some more time back with the program, but will Fuente want to make a switch heading into a road game against a top-10 team? Fans will have to wait until Saturday to find out, it would seem.
"I'm not being coy with the whole thing, it's just things change so quickly," Fuente said. "Getting guys up to speed and out there playing, we just have to play it by ear."