By Jimmy Robertson
BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech head football coach Justin Fuente met with media members via Zoom on Friday afternoon and provided updates on a wide array of topics, as the Hokies concluded their first week of practices in preparation for the upcoming season.
Here are some takeaways from the Fuente news conference:
• Tech’s players continue to wear masks and face shields as much as possible during practices as a precaution against a coronavirus that can spread quickly among large groups of people. Also, the coaching staff continues to reinforce distancing during practices as another way to reduce risk.
Fuente said Friday that none of this has hindered the Hokies in terms of getting the most out of their work sessions.
“They’ve been productive and good, given the circumstances, in my opinion,” Fuente said. “It was a long layoff. We didn’t have an entire summer to prepare. We’ve taken those things into consideration. That’s why our practices, particularly early, have been spaced out because of that. We knew we weren’t going to be rolling into camp with the benefit of an entire summer, conditioning-wise.
“I think our kids have done a great job. I couldn’t be happier with them. These young people are dealing with a lot, and it changes every single day. I’m not being critical, but between the COVID situation and the NCAA continuing to go through all this, and everything they read, they’ve got a lot going on, and I think they’ve done a remarkable job handling all of that and trying to focus on what they control and get in good work.”
• Fuente and the staff went into August thinking that the offensive line might be the strongest part of the squad, and after a week’s worth of practices, they feel the same way. The Hokies return their entire starting offensive line from the bowl game, and the Hokies’ line includes 10 players who have started at least one game in their careers.
“I still feel pretty good about our offensive line,” Fuente said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel good about the tight ends or what we’re going to be on the defensive line when we get all those sorted out. I just feel like we’ve got some real quality depth up front. That’s unfair to say when we’ve practiced four times, and we’ve only been in shoulder pads twice. There’s still a long way to go, but that group is pretty talented, in my opinion.”
Fuente added that line coach Vance Vice continues to shuffle guys around at various positions along the line. Vice normally does that, but doing so this August makes even more sense, as he prepares for the possibility that COVID-19 could knock multiple players out of games. Positional flexibility is a key for every team this season.
“We’re moving a lot of people around,” Fuente said. “If we’re going to play this season, we’ve got to have a lot of guys be flexible. We’ve moved all those inside guys around. Brock [Hoffman] has worked at center and at guard, and if he needs to, he can move outside at tackle. Bryan [Hudson] has moved inside at guard and has taken reps at tackle. We’re moving those guys quite a bit. We haven’t moved Christian [Darrisaw] very much, and we haven’t moved Luke [Tenuta] around very much, but those other guys, we’ve moved around quite a bit.”
• Tech added Changa Hodge, a graduate transfer from Villanova, to the receivers a few days ago, as the staff attempts to shore up a position that lacks both experience and depth. Hodge led the Wildcats in receiving last season with 65 catches for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, Hodge hasn’t practiced yet – he continues to work his way through the NCAA and the university process.
“We needed to shore that room up,” Fuente said. “Changa hasn’t been on the field for us. You can imagine the protocols he has to go through in order to make it to working in large groups, not just getting into school and the paperwork with that, but COVID and all the protocols. So he’s not on the field.
“But I feel good about it [the receivers group]. I feel good about the progress that some guys have made, too. I start to see Jaden Payoute, and I get excited about the progress that he’s made – and he’s still learning. He’s working incredibly hard, and he’s got talent. He’s grown by leaps and bounds without the benefit of a spring practice. So I get to feeling pretty good about that group when they’re up and healthy and what we can do there.”
Fuente was asked specifically about Payoute, and he spoke glowingly of the 6-foot-1, 206-pound redshirt freshman from Richmond. Payoute was a state champion in the 100-meter dash while in high school, so he brings a speed element that this offense needs.
“He is a fantastic athlete,” Fuente said. “He’s been a remarkable study. First of all, he feels so much better. He had severe allergies when he entered into college. They drove him crazy. We’ve taken large steps toward getting that under control and his diet, and his testing numbers in terms of lifting have skyrocketed. He’s going to be a really strong wide receiver with great explosiveness.
“But there is an element to learning how to play wide receiver that he really hasn’t done. He played quarterback his senior year of high school, and he doesn’t have it all figured out, but he’s made huge strides in that direction.”
• Speaking of players with immense potential, Amaré Barno agreed to a move from backer to defensive end, as the staff attempts to take advantage of his immense skillset. Barno, a 6-6, 235-pound redshirt junior, provides depth for a unit that is without TyJuan Garbutt, who continues to work through a personal issue, and his long frame appears suited for the defensive end spot.
“It was more like we have this great kid that works his tail off and everybody loves, and we want to see him have a chance for success, and we think that a position move is going to give him the best chance to have success,” Fuente said. “We talked to him about it, and he was incredible. You know, Divine Deablo has switched positions. Caleb Farley switched positions. For Amaré, I thought it was fantastic how he went about it. He listened, he called home, and he came to visit with me about it. He trusted us, trusted the process, and has gone down there with a great attitude.
“I said last night at a team meeting that I think he’s gotten better every period of practice, not [just] every practice. We’ll see where that leads. I don’t want to inflate it too much, but it’s been really cool to see how he’s handled it and processed it and then jumped in the middle and tried his best to make it work.”
• Fuente revealed that Rahiem Blackshear’s waiver for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA, but that the transfer from Rutgers planned to appeal the decision. Blackshear, who played two seasons at Rutgers and amassed 2,239 all-purpose yards, is working at running back for the Hokies.
“I was notified yesterday [Thursday], and you all know I’m not involved in any of that. This comes through administration and compliance, but they [Tech’s compliance office] feel good about our stance,” Fuente said. “They were surprised, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we can turn it around in relatively short order.”