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The Hokies dominating defense is flush with talent as Antone Exum returns, but bringing him back into the lineup is a balancing act.
The Roanoke Times | File 2012
Tech’s Antone Exum grabs at Cincinnati receiver Kenbrell Thompkins during the teams’ matchup in September of 2012.
Associated Press | File 2012
Virginia Tech's Antone Exum fights for possession of the ball against Clemson's Andre Ellington.
The Roanoke Times | File August
Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller runs back an interception of an A.J. McCarron pass against Alabama.
Tech cornerback Brandon Facyson (31) grabs for a fumble against Georgia Tech.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Between injuries and inexperience, there were times last year when Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray didn’t quite know what he was going to get from his cornerbacks in a given week.
Perhaps his current embarrassment of riches at the position is karmic repayment.
With senior cornerback Antone Exum returning to full participation this week after eight months away because of offseason knee surgery, Gray is tasked with finding a delicate balance in transitioning the All-ACC performer into a secondary that’s already humming along in top form.
Exum rejoins a cornerback group headlined by senior Kyle Fuller and a pair of true freshmen, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, who have helped the Hokies give up the fifth fewest passing yards in the country through five weeks (138.2 ypg) and tie for the national lead with 11 interceptions.
“I guess it’s better to have more than you need than not have enough,” Gray said. “We went through that last year. We kind of were scrambling to try to find our identity there on the back end and I’m like, ‘Whoa.’
“I don’t want to say that we’ve got too many, because you say that and all of a sudden you get a couple guys down. But right now … I look at the guys and I’m like, ‘Man, we’re pretty talented.’ I’ve just got to figure it out.”
Kyle Fuller is locked in at the boundary corner, while his younger brother Kendall, a five-star prospect who has lived up to his billing, has been mostly utilized as a nickelback when the Hokies put three corners on the field.
That leaves Exum to return to field corner, where Facyson has held down the fort when Tech has used its nickel package. Though medically cleared, Exum still has to check out physically before the coaches give him the lion’s share of reps. Gray anticipates Exum and Facyson getting a 50-50 split of plays at corner against UNC.
“Whoever the hot guy is, you want to keep going with him,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said.
But the question buzzing among the fan base is this: Is it wise to reduce the playing time of someone who has played so well the first five weeks?
Facyson is tied for the national lead with four interceptions, already tying V T’s freshman record. Last week against Georgia Tech, he earned ACC Co-Rookie of the Week honors with three tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and two pass breakups.
Both Gray and Exum roundly dismissed the idea that Exum, who alternated between free safety and rover in his first two seasons, could return to his old position, even with Detrick Bonner’s struggles in pass coverage lately.
That means Facyson, who coaches said will dabble at wide receiver this week, will likely see his defensive playing time depend on Exum’s game readiness.
Exum said he’s ready to play, although he has to knock off some rust. He hasn’t tackled anyone live for months and is coming off surgery to repair the ACL, lateral and medial meniscus and a bone fracture in his right knee, which will require him to wear a brace .
“We’re looking at the North Carolina game last year and you see Antone make some unbelievable plays,” Gray said. “Right now, he’s probably going to be a week or so away or maybe a couple weeks before we see that kind of Antone. But he’s working himself in.”
“If he’s not 100 percent, I’m hoping he’d be man enough to tell me,” Foster said. “Because that’s the bottom line when it’s all said and done: we need everybody out there going 100 percent full speed and being at the best of their ability to go compete.”
It still makes for an awkward situation. The Hokies are essentially reducing the playing time of a cornerback who has played lights out. Granted, they’re doing so to make room for a team leader and a second-team All-ACC performer a year ago.
“I really don’t know what else to say about that. I don’t want to say anything wrong,” Exum said, choosing his words carefully. “It does suck, though, and I do hope they find a way to work [Facyson] in because he’s definitely a big-time player.”
There are worse problems to have.
“This is the best dilemma we could have, having a lot of play-makers and trying to decide who to put on the field,” Exum said. “That’s not something I’m sure that they’re going to lose too much sleep over.”
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