Justin Fuente says he's a bit of a "basket case" these days, and who can blame him? He still isn't sure he'll actually be able to field a team when this highly unusual season kicks off, just over two weeks from now.
That's not to say that the Hokies have been completely hobbled by coronavirus just yet, though Fuente will say the locker room has seen some infections, especially as students have returned to Blacksburg. His more immediate problem is figuring out just how many cases of Covid-19 his squad can absorb before he feels compelled to throw in the towel — and he says the ACC hasn't exactly been helpful in setting clear standards, even though the season is nearly underway.
"I have no idea what the requisites are to play or not play a game. No clue," Fuente told reporters Wednesday in an unusually candid session with the media. "I don't mean to be flippant, but I just don't know. I don't know who makes the call, how it all works...And here we are, a few weeks before we play."
Fuente allows that it's a difficult decision for the conference and individual schools to make, but his frustration is with the lack of consistency. Witness N.C. State pausing all its football activities a week ago, thereby delaying Tech's season opener, only to agree to resume practice Monday.
The head Hokie admits he's not sure how he'd make a similar decision, if he was presented with the sort of spike in cases the Wolfpack witnessed. And when pressed if he felt ready to play a game at this very moment, Fuente sounded very much like a man who harbored grave doubts about the whole prospect of pushing ahead with football this year.
"What does 'can you play a game' mean?" Fuente said. "Can you line up 11 people out there? Can you field a team? Or how competitive are you going to be? So can we play, yeah. But there's all that gray that I think it's hard to figure out right now and answering that part of the question is more important than 'can you play?' Yeah, you can, absolutely, but at what point do you reach the point of it not being very safe?"
Fuente observed that it's about "the health and safety" of his players, at a certain point. Not just the crucial question of whether the team can compete without spreading a deadly disease, but whether he'll be forced to start playing athletes who "aren't ready to be out there to begin with" as case numbers rise. He notes that the ACC hasn't given him guidance on matters like, say, whether he should press ahead with playing if he'll be relying heavily on walk-ons or scout team players.
"Do those guys count? Is it position-related?" Fuente said. "I don't know the answer to any of that right now."
For now, at least, it seems these are hypothetical questions. Fuente said the team has yet to see the worst-case scenario of an entire position group all being infected at once. And many of the players to test positive have been asymptomatic, saving them from some of the worst health consequences of the virus.
But he said that cases on the team have been rising in line with cases on campus, with Tech reporting a 1.8 percent positivity rate, as of Monday. Those numbers have crept consistently upward as students have returned to campus, and Fuente expects the team will inevitably see more cases too.
"I'm not blaming it on the students, it's just a fact," Fuente said. "There's more traffic in the streets and longer lines at Chipotle, it's part of the deal."
He's advised players, of course, to limit contacts with other students. RB Jalen Holston summed up his routine thusly: "Football, school and repeat."
But Fuente acknowledges it will be difficult for players to cut off all contact with their peers, especially when they're at home. And he said he didn't feel comfortable with taking more extreme measures on living arrangements, such as telling players of the same position group they can't live together for fear they'll infect each other.
In these uncertain times, Fuente said he's trying to remain cognizant of the emotional effect of this constant Covid vigilance on players. He notes players are each being tested three times a week, meaning that there are three chances each week for some seriously tense conversations with medical staff: "There's a little bit of strain that comes with that," he admits.
"The fact that things could get taken away any time makes you anxious," said RB Khalil Herbert, a grad transfer from Kansas. "But we're hoping for a chance to play."
Blackshear and other new faces join the RB room
All that uncertainty aside, the Hokies did get a small bit of good news this week: Rutgers transfer RB Raheem Blackshear got the NCAA's stamp of approval to play right away this year.
"Coach Fu came to me with a big smile on his face and the whole (RB) group was excited," Blackshear said. "He said, 'You better get ready to play.'"
Indeed, Blackshear should figure into the RB rotation prominently next year, and even pick up some receiving duties. In his 27 games at Rutgers, he ran for just over 900 yards, but also caught 80 passes for just over 800 yards, and he figures to continue to be a dual threat at Tech.
He said he's worked some in the slot this fall, modeling his game after versatile backs like Christian McCaffrey and D'Andre Swift, a friend of his and fellow Philadelphia native. And Fuente was certainly bullish on his potential to contribute early and often, suggesting he'll get a chance to return kicks right away (and perhaps spell Tayvion Robinson on punt returns too).
"His intelligence makes him unique," Fuente said. "He's almost obsessed about getting things done correctly. He will literally badger an assistant coach all the way out onto the field to understand what he'll be doing because it's important to him to get it right...Those guys are fairly unique, guys who are intelligent and have the burning desire to get things right all the time. It can make him pretty fun to coach."
Of course, he'll have lots of competition too, considering he's not even the only transfer joining the RB room. There's Herbert coming from Kansas as well, plus Marco Lee, a JUCO transfer. And that's to say nothing of sophomore Keshawn King, who showed flashes last year, and senior Jalen Holston, back at full speed after recovering from a broken ankle.
"Raheem, he's a speedster, quick, just cutting on a dime," Holston said. "And Khalil, I wanna say he has the ability to make cuts and the vision to make cuts before a play is even happening."
But with so many new faces, Holston provides some consistency. He says his ankle started to feel normal again this spring, and with a new jersey number, 0, he's ready for a fresh start.
"Jalen stepped up to be a leader, he took over the room," Blackshear said. "Jalen's like the big brother of the room right now."
An empty Lane for UVA?
The impending season has been turned upside down in so many ways, and the schedule is no different. Instead of closing the season, the battle for the Commonwealth Cup is first up on the horizon.
And this week's news that fans will be barred from tailgating at Lane Stadium means that new arrivals to the team will be treated to a considerably more subdued edition of the rivalry game this year. There's still no telling exactly how many fans will be allowed inside Lane, if any, though some sort of capacity limit looks certain — cardboard cutouts will likely be the main attendees the players see.
Now the team is left to adjust to the likelihood of playing in a virtually empty stadium for what should be the most raucous game of the year. Herbert said the team has already started scrimmaging and practicing in an empty Lane to prepare, but that doesn't mean it'll be an easy adjustment.
"I hate it for our fans, but I understand it," Fuente said. "We're in unprecedented times and everybody is making sacrifices and that's part of it...We know it's more than just a game here at Virginia Tech. It's an experience, it's camaraderie; it's like a vacation. People plan weddings around it."
Fuente joked that he has no plans to place a cardboard cutout of himself in Lane for the opener, though he has heard that vigilant watchers might spot Michael Vick's likeness in the makeshift crowd.
Without fans, that means it's up to the players to generate some sense of the stakes of the game internally. Even for the new additions to the squad, that should be little trouble a year after suffering a loss to a hated rival like UVA.
"They've got something we want to get back," Herbert said.
Injuries and absences
Covid aside, Fuente said he does have a few other notable absences to deal with on defense.
First, there's Nasir Peoples, who Fuente said is now out for the year after suffering some sort of non-contact knee injury. The redshirt sophomore hasn't played much early in his career, but Fuente said he was working at safety and figured to make an impact this year before the injury.
Otherwise, Fuente said the team hasn't seen much in the way of notable injuries. There is the matter of starting DE Tyjuan Garbutt, however, who did not join the team at the start of fall camp while dealing with an undisclosed family matter.
Fuente said that not much has changed in that department, noting that Garbutt is "going to school but not with the team right now."
"I saw him yesterday, he came out to practice, so he's around," Fuente said. "But he's not with the football team right now."