The calls for Justin Fuente's job have become downright deafening in the wake of the beatdown the Hokies suffered against Pitt this week. With a few weeks left in the season, Justin Fuente says he isn't listening.
"I haven't listened to one thing," Fuente said Monday, when asked by reporters if he'd heard any of the noise coming from the fan base. "I don't know anything."
That being said, Fuente said he is cognizant that it's "nice to coach at a place that values football, and there's a lot that comes with that." Working somewhere like Blacksburg where football is the main event will generate high expectations, and discontent when the team underperforms, as the Hokies have this year.
So Fuente allows that "nobody's happy with the record," which at 4-5 leaves Tech needing wins against Clemson and UVA just to get back over .500 on the year. And he says "nobody likes what we're doing" right now, particularly after looking inept on offense and defense alike against a Panthers team the Hokies were favored to beat.
But Fuente isn't willing to engage yet in a more robust reckoning with the fact that large swaths of the Hokies' faithful have lost confidence in the current regime.
"I can't control the perception of other people," Fuente said. "What I can do is do the best job i can do for all of our players...Our staff is working diligently, our players are working hard under very difficult circumstances."
Indeed, much as he did in the immediate aftermath of the Pitt game, Fuente emphasized the difficulty of becoming too frustrated about this year's results given the challenges thrust upon the team during the pandemic. He dubbed 2020 the "hardest year to have a team improve," given the lack of bye weeks until now, the challenges assembling a full squad to practice due to Covid concerns and the all-conference schedule the team's played (Liberty excluded).
"The young people that touch our program, the precautions they're having to take, the stress of not knowing whether they'll get to play and we'll be able to play, combined with all the things going on in the last nine months in our country, you can't help but be more understanding," Fuente said.
Still, Fuente doesn't want to throw out all of what he's seen this season as some sort of Covid-inspired aberration. Sounding very much like a man who expects he'll still have a job next year, Fuente said he hopes to learn some lessons from this strange season.
"We'll take a great look at how we tried to practice, how we tried to adapt to it, what we do meeting-wise and schematically," Fuente said. "Some of it we'll hopefully throw away and never use again...But I don't think it would be wise to just wipe it off the board. Emotionally, we'd like to wipe it off the board. But in terms of your routine and practicing, I think it would be wise to take a look at it all."
Fuente said he's already directed his staff to use the open date to review "every single play, every single scheme that we've run, all the film" and provide a report back to him about a path forward later this week. But he doesn't want to put too much pressure on the players ahead of Thanksgiving, holding only a handful of practices this week — and he's not giving them strict orders to stay in Blacksburg for the holiday, despite moves by other coaches to do the same.
"I'm not going to lock them up...I'm going to encourage them to understand the importance of how they act or what they're around, but I'm not going to force them to stay here or go home," Fuente said. "In my mind, they have sacrificed plenty, and they deserve an opportunity to go home if they're in the region and can do it safely."
Opting Out Worries?
It's difficult enough to keep players engaged in a lost season in non-Covid times. But with the pandemic throwing even bowl season into doubt, Fuente admits that it will be a challenge to keep the team motivated.
Thus far, however, he said there have not been an elevated number of players interested in opting out of the season. It should be noted that several players appeared to dispute his assertion on Twitter after the press conference concluded, but Fuente said he had not seen an influx of requests to skip the remaining two games after last week's disappointing result.
"I'm sure there's several guys on our team who wished they played more or played better, but our guys have done a great job thus far," Fuente said. "We have had that conversation with a few guys before. The first question is: is this Covid-related or playing time related? And making sure if it is Covid-related that we do a good job of addressing their concerns and diagnosing it, having those conversations with their families too."
Ordinarily, Fuente would be able to point to Tech's long bowl streak as a reason for the team to rally and try to pull off the unthinkable, as the Hokies would have to knock off Clemson to ensure a six-win season and a bowl trip. But the NCAA has said it's waiving that standard this year, so there's no telling just how the various bowls will hand out invites after the season (or even what those games will look like, safety-wise).
"We really haven't talked about it all," Fuente said. "We just don't have much control over it."
A QP Clarification
Among the more puzzling moments against Pitt (in a game full of them) was when Quincy Patterson came in for Hendon Hooker immediately on the heels of Tech's biggest offensive play of the day thus far, a 38-yard pass to James Mitchell.
Despite the excitement surrounding the long pass, the drive sputtered just on the edge of field goal range. Patterson completed a single pass, but was otherwise ineffective, leaving fans scratching their heads about why Hooker didn't stay in the game.
Fuente said there's a simple explanation: the starter hurt his elbow on the previous play. While he did say the coaching staff wanted to play Patterson more as a general rule, he said Hooker was simply unable to stay in the game on that drive.
"He had an issue with his hand, hit his funny bone or something, I think that's why that ball was so low (to Mitchell)," Fuente said. "It took some time to get his fingers back feeling good."