The last time Justin Fuente and Bronco Mendenhall had to have a serious heart-to-heart was in 2014, in the wake of a bench-clearing brawl at the end of the Miami Beach Bowl. On Saturday, the pair had to have a similarly difficult conversation under wildly different circumstances.
"Bronco and I, we understand where we coach and the rivalry, but we've coached against each other for a long time," Fuente told reporters Monday. "I just felt like it was the right thing to do...I wanted to just make sure he knew what was happening and why it was happening from me, not from somebody else."
And so, six years after Fuente's Memphis team and Mendenhall's BYU squad kicked up controversy with that post-bowl brouhaha, the two coaches found themselves talking out a difficult issue once more. As Fuente described it Monday, he was unequivocal that "there's no way we could walk out there and safely put our kids on the field," telling the Cavs' head man that VT's medical experts had advised against the Sept. 19 game.
"It wasn't until the very end that it became apparent that this was not safe. This had nothing to do with competitive advantage," Fuente said. "(The players) and I have taken quite a bit of flak for it, but the bottom line is, it was absolutely the right call. It just was not safe to put that small a number of kids out on the field."
As the heated exchanges on Twitter between Hoos and Hokies suggested, Fuente said the team was "crushed" to get the news. He noted that all the players left on the team "have been given a free pass out" of playing this season, yet have chosen to enduring the grind of this very unusual fall camp anyway, so no one should doubt their commitment to pressing forward with the Commonwealth Cup.
"They believe they could go out there and play without very many guys," Fuente said. "Sometimes we have to protect them from themselves. And that's what (Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Rogers) did. I told them, if you guys want to be mad at someone, be mad at me. But doc looked at it, and in my opinion, it wasn't even close."
Fuente once again stopped short of saying how many players tested positive for coronavirus, nor did he detail which position groups were affected — the ACC has only vague standards governing when teams should postpone due to health concerns, though it does outline some minimum numbers for select position groups, such as offensive line.
However, he would say that "this was not a situation of, there was a big party or big get together that it all stemmed from," noting that the team had seen relatively few cases or players in quarantine until students began to return to Blacksburg. Once that happened, he said that cases on the team didn't quite match "one-to-one" with the numbers recorded at Virginia Tech or the broader New River Valley community, but it was close.
"We have been really good all summer long, we were knocking it out of the park," Fuente said. "Our circumstances changed dramatically a couple of weeks ago."
So where does that leave the Hokies now? In what's become a constant refrain this fall, the situation is still pretty murky. Fuente noted that it's not as if all the players "who are out have had" Covid-19, thereby meaning they'll be immune for the rest of the year — instead, in many cases, players are forced to sit out for contact tracing purposes.
"I don't know who we have back right now or who we'll have back tomorrow," Fuente said. "It's not gonna be on Wednesday, everybody's good, you know you get a week and a half to prepare. That's not how this works. All those kids, almost all of them, their timetables are different. Some guys have a chance to get out (of isolation) next Wednesday, some Thursday, some Tuesday, some Saturday. It's all over the place. You get portions of guys in. It's like a revolving door with where you're at right now."
All that means there's no telling if the Hokies will actually be able to open the season on Sept. 26 against N.C. State. Fuente is hoping that this week's test results give him a bit more clarity, but the head Hokie wasn't making any promises about when the team's 2020 season will kick off.
"I don't feel comfortable raising the alarm or putting the fire out right now for the N.C. state game," Fuente said. "I just don't know enough right now about how things are going or where we're at. Hopefully everything works out and we find a way to get it done."
Devon Hunter fallout
In more normal times, the news that a former top recruit and potential starter was suspended indefinitely would dominate the day.
So while the deadly pandemic might've overshadowed things a bit, DB Devon Hunter's arrest on assault charges still grabbed headlines. Fuente, however, was pretty tight lipped about addressing the situation.
"I understand your reasons for asking, and I hope you understand the reasons I can't reply," Fuente said, citing Hunter's pending case in Montgomery County District Court.
Fuente also wasn't ready to say with any certainty who might take over for Hunter at the boundary safety position in his absence, noting that the staff has yet to meet to discuss the issue in detail. However, he did allow that redshirt senior Tyree Rodgers is one possibility, as is redshirt freshman J.R. Walker and true freshman Keonta Jenkins.
"Keonta's had a good fall camp, J.R.'s certainly one that continues to get better as well," Fuente said. "To say that all those things will be fluid is an understatement, in continuing to cross train guys and get guys ready. It's a little too early to say right now."