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The injured Hokies cornerback is a team leader as well as a standout defensive back.
The Roanoke Times | File December
Hokies cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL playing pickup basketball in January. Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said Monday that Exum has been cleared to play.
Friday, April 5, 2013
BLACKSBURG — In addition to the interceptions and pass breakups, of which there were many, cornerback Antone Exum brought something else to the Virginia Tech defense last season.
“Everything he did,” cornerback Donovan Riley said, “you felt his presence.”
With Exum’s status for the season opener in doubt after tearing an ACL in a pickup game of basketball in January, Virginia Tech will need to find someone to fill that void, both from a leadership standpoint and a positional one.
The Hokies have several candidates for the former, but are looking primarily at a pair of sophomores — Riley and Donaldven Manning — for the latter.
Both played sparingly as true freshmen, going through their respective learning curves, but now might be in line to start at the corner spot opposite Kyle Fuller when the Hokies face two-time defending national champion Alabama at the end of August.
It’s possible that Exum’s rehab won’t be finished by then and that touted five-star signee Kendall Fuller, who won’t enroll at Tech until the summer, won’t be ready to play so soon.
That makes it a big spring for Riley and Manning, who are taking the majority of reps at Exum’s vacated field corner position and could get a leg up on the competition to replace the senior in his absence.
“Those guys were freshmen last year and sometimes it’s tough if you don’t get it,” defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. “But now that they’ve been through it, I expect those guys to be a lot better this year.”
Riley, a 5-foot-11, 202-pounder from Reistertown, Md., enters the spring atop the depth chart. He played in 12 games last year but mostly on special teams, getting just 22 defensive snaps. His biggest moment came against Florida State, when he intercepted a pass near the end zone to stop a Seminoles drive.
“He was in practice, he competed, he understood our expectations, the sense of urgency of how you practice, all those things,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said.
Mentally, Gray said, Riley is “10 times better than he was last year.”
“I can understand the playbook fully,” Riley said. “I can read the plays and in our meetings, when we’re going over plays and stuff, I can understand it. I don’t have to second-guess myself when I’m out on the field and ask questions, because it comes to me naturally.”
Manning, a 5-foot-9, 174-pounder from Miami, has looked forward to a fresh start after a rocky first year in Blacksburg. After enrolling early, he was thrust into action against Cincinnati when Kyle Fuller got hurt, and got roughed up giving up a key touchdown in the third quarter.
He battled some off-field issues he chalked up to being a freshman, with rumors running rampant that he’d leave the team in November. After chatting with Frank Beamer, he stayed and even traveled with the team to the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“I love Virginia Tech,” Manning said. “I would never want to leave Virginia Tech. I never had thoughts of leaving Virginia Tech. … They all treat me like family.”
Both corners think they’ve advanced their games in specific areas. For Riley, it’s playing in space.
“Coming in, I was hands-on corner,” Riley said. “Now I feel more comfortable playing off man, where I can read the quarterback and read the man at the same time.”
Manning, who was listed as 155 pounds last year, has bulked up to 174, the byproduct of a post-bowl routine that included taking a creatine-based product and eating five meals a day.
“I want to be more aggressive in the run front,” he said. “I don’t want to just be a cover corner. I want to be a corner that can cover and tackle.”
Tech would like to develop both, hoping to avoid the depth problems that limited last year’s secondary, particularly early in the season. When Exum returns, both Riley and Manning could be valuable backups or used in the Hokies’ nickel formation.
“They’re going to get a lot of reps and they’re going to get a chance to grow,” Foster said. “And all of those kids I think have ability. Now they just have to take that next step for us right now.”
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