As far as Justin Fuente knows, there will finally be Hokies football on Saturday. But even just a few days out from the would-be season opener, that could change at any minute.
Fuente told reporters Monday that he is "optimistic and hopeful" that Virginia Tech will kick off its season against N.C. State, as planned, even though he is clear that "we will not have a full roster" this weekend. He's dubbing it a "test-by-test world" that the team is living in, so his prediction early in the week could easily fail to hold up.
"I'm not trying to raise the alarm, but I'm just being honest with the situation that we're in," Fuente said. "It's a little bit like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube and a new layer gets added every single day."
The head Hokie later admitted that he's never actually solved that puzzle himself (he leaves that to his kids, who he says have littered about 10 cubes around his house) but he certainly understands just how complex they can be. He sees it every day as he tries to sort out who will be able to take the field against the Wolfpack, which very much remains up in the air at this point.
"I don't know that I have ever been this close to a game and felt as uneasy about who we will have in the game as I do right now," Fuente said. "I'll be excited when we get the last test in and we know who's going to be out there."
That being said, Fuente did say that the team is collectively "anxious to play" and "tired of practice." But he also admitted that "I probably don't have the same tone in my voice that you usually have heading into a first game," sounding very much like a man worn down by so much talk of quarantine and contact tracing. Even the Wolfpack sound a bit befuddled.
"We know their personnel. We just don't know who they'll be playing," N.C. State Head Coach Dave Doeren told reporters Monday.
Fuente can't even be sure if he'll have his full staff with him Saturday. The team announced plans to have three coaches in the booth — OC Brad Cornelsen, RBs coach Adam Lechtenberg and CBs coach Ryan Smith — to spread things out on the sideline slightly, but there's no telling yet whether the Hokies will get to put that plan into practice.
"I think we should have everybody or almost everybody," Fuente said. "It's a little bit like the players. We'll find out. We're all in the same testing group."
It might get lost amid all the coronavirus craziness, but Fuente still has an actual football game to worry about soon enough. When he's not fretting about his own team, he's also brainstorming the best way to slow down an offense that won a 45-42 shootout with Wake Forest in its first game, picking up 270 rushing yards along the way.
But those concerns feel a little more normal at least, as Fuente fusses about ways to stop, say the QB and RB stretch plays he noticed about during film study, instead of the spread of deadly virus.
"I feel pretty good about our football team and what they can do, even if getting them together has been a bit of an issue," Fuente said.
A Fluid Defensive Depth Chart
All the aforementioned Covid uncertainty makes reading Tech's newly released depth chart (page 9) a futile exercise in some senses — but with the prospect that backups could be called upon to become starters following just one Covid test, it's perhaps an even more valuable document than ever.
Take the mix in secondary, for instance. Perhaps the most notable news on that front is true freshman Keonta Jenkins listed as the starting rover, a development Fuente hinted at last week following the news of Devon Hunter's suspension.
And behind Jenkins is another freshman, Lakeem Rudolph out of Virginia Beach. Junior Chamarri Conner brings some experience to the nickel corner spot, but he too is backed up by a freshman: J.R. Walker, who at least has a redshirt year under his belt.
This is where Fuente says the team most misses Nasir Peoples, who's now out for the year. But he still expects all of the players in the secondary to rotate around quite a bit to make up for that youth.
"We do still have some guys on that depth chart that can play multiple positions," Fuente said. "We are a little bit thin. We'll have to do a good job of being able to crosstrain guys on those defensive back positions to play a couple different spots."
Fuente expects that CB Devin Taylor, an Illinois State transfer who only joined the team in late August, to be part of that equation. Even though he's only been part of practice for a few weeks, he's already been listed on the second team with junior Brion Murray, behind starters Armani Chatman and Jermaine Waller.
"I've been really pleased with him, we don't have any reservations about putting him on the field," Fuente said. "He's caught up really quickly."
Similarly, Fuente chose to list Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale as co-starters at outside linebacker, suggesting that the pair could spend some time on the field together — however, he noted that could mean that Hollifield spends some time at mike linebacker spelling Rayshard Ashby.
Some Options on Offense
The fluidity on the new depth chart is evident on the offensive side of the ball as well.
Take running back, for instance, where Fuente made the surprising choice of listing grad transfer Khalil Herbert as the starting option, backed up by fellow transfer Raheem Blackshear. The two players with more experience in Tech's offense (Jalen Holston and Keshawn King) were listed with the ever-mysterious "OR" separating them on the third team.
The offensive line brought some surprises as well. With Brock Hoffman taking over at center, the team listed Bryan Hudson as the newly minted starter at right guard. Curiously, that's pushed over last year's starter at the position, Doug Nester, over to right tackle, where he backs up Luke Tenuta.
"I have no problem sliding Doug to that spot, it's where he played last year (before moving to guard," Fuente said. "I'm thankful we have as many guys as we do who have played and played well. I think those are their natural spots (on the depth chart) in a perfect world, but I also believe they'll be mixed around a bit."
Fuente also confirmed that he still plans to give Braxton Burmeister plenty of reps alongside starting QB Hendon Hooker, though he said it's an "ongoing process of how that will exactly work."
Tayvion Robinson, meanwhile, appears only once on the depth chart, at wide receiver instead of his assumed role as punt returner. Though that inspired plenty of Twitter chatter, Fuente said that was merely a "mistake," with Herbert, Blackshear and King also listed as possible options there.