Justin Fuente bookended his Friday news conference — ’twas virtual, of course — with the uncertainties surrounding Virginia Tech’s 2020 football season.
His opening litany was routine, a summary of personnel issues ranging from injury to transfer waiver to family matters. His closing thought was uncommon — fitting for the times.
“Yeah, I think flexibility is going to be paramount,” the Hokies’ fifth-year coach said. “There are some scenarios where you could play different opponents than what’s on the schedule. … I’m not saying this is definitely going to happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’re finding out midweek that you’re playing somebody else. And I think both scheme and personnel flexibility to give yourself the opportunity to play and be successful has got to be at the forefront of your mind as a coach.”
Hindsight could well expose major college sports’ attempt to compete during a pandemic as foolish, and even reckless. But with the blessing of their university presidents, ACC football programs are commencing preseason camps in, Fuente’s words, “the safest way humanly possible.”
Tech is scheduled to open Sept. 12 against North Carolina State, and if games are possible, Fuente’s words ring true. Nimble teams will win.
If multiple receivers are quarantined by the coronavirus or contact tracing, have running backs and/or defensive backs been drilled to fill the void? If a coordinator, or even the head coach, is similarly shelved, how well does the staff adjust?
And yes, in the midst of game-planning for N.C. State, can you turn on a dime and prepare for Clemson because the Wolfpack can’t play?
Discipline and good fortune also will be essential. Do players and staff follow protocols? Are those around them diligent? What are virus rates on-campus and in the community at-large?
Fuente gets it. At 44, he’s not so old as to forget his college experiences at Oklahoma and Murray State and how social those days were.
“We have talked at length,” Fuente said, “that if we want to play, we have to understand we can’t do things the way we have always done. That’s the bottom line. If we want to accomplish this, the onus is on us. We have some control over it — we don’t have total control over it — but we need to focus on what we can control and do the best we can. We do have to alter our behavior. We are going to have to sacrifice and that’s unfortunate. …
“It’s something that we talk about on a daily, hourly basis. … I would say that we should not underestimate the stress and anxiety that our young people are going through in this. I’m not talking about football. I’m just talking about in general. I see it in my own house with my kids, and my kids are a lot younger than these players. But I have a junior high-aged girl, and she needs some social interaction. And the same is true of our players.”
But interaction can imperil teams and seasons. Witness a recent gathering of a few Louisville men’s soccer athletes that mushroomed into a full-blown party. Twenty-nine subsequent virus cases forced the Cardinals to pause workouts for four Olympic sports teams.
The men’s soccer program dismissed three players and suspended three others over the protocol break, and Fuente said he’ll discuss the incident, and its repercussions, with his team. What he hasn’t determined is how he’d discipline athletes responsible for such a breach.
Fuente is among scores of football coaches crafting preseason camps to minimize potential virus exposure. Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins has divided his squad into two groups that practice separately and use different locker rooms. Fuente shouted out Miami’s Manny Diaz for sharing with his ACC peers a breakdown of problematic contact some 2019 drills created and how to adjust accordingly.
While programs such as North Carolina, Rutgers and Michigan State have, at various times, paused conditioning over COVID-19 worries, there are some encouraging numbers. For example, in recent reports, Maryland, Boston College and Notre Dame combined for no positive results among 484 tests.
Rookie BC coach Jeff Hafley applauded his squad’s buy-in but acknowledged “this is just the start, because it’s going to get harder.”
Training camps haven’t hit overdrive. Schools haven’t started the fall semester. Games haven’t kicked off.
Fuente is just glad to be opening camp — finally. He doesn’t know if Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear, a versatile running back, will receive a waiver for immediate eligibility. He said that defensive end TyJuan Garbutt may miss the season while addressing family concerns and that defensive tackle Jaden Cunningham is sidelined with an Achilles injury.
Still, his enthusiasm was visible and audible.
“Now we’ve just been through walk-throughs,” Fuente said, “so we haven’t really practiced. But I do feel that there is some excitement to do something else, you know? To take your mind off of some of the things that are very serious that we’re all dealing with.”