Virginia Tech football’s star cornerback, Antone Exum, is finally slated to return to the field against the Duke Blue Devils after completing his recovery from a torn ACL, but the coaching staff will face some challenges integrating him back into the lineup.
The secondary has been excellent in his absence; the Hokies are currently tied for third in the nation in interceptions with 13. Exum’s return will complicate a unit that has clearly found its rhythm so far.
It’s not as if Exum brings nothing to the table. After all, he finished with five interceptions last season, good for 11th in the country.
However, no one can be exactly sure how healthy his knee really is. Exum says he feels confident, but ACL injuries are notoriously difficult to come back from, and he may find he has some unexpected mobility issues once he gets into game action.
He’ll also be displacing Brandon Facyson, the freshman cornerback that’s leading the team in interceptions, which could cause some issues in the locker room.
Further complicating things, the team is experiencing some injury issues at cornerback, all while preparing for a surprisingly potent Duke offense.
It all adds up to the fact that Exum’s return will have a sizable effect on this squad, both positive and negative.
The Hokies have had terrible luck with injuries that have occurred during practice, and this week was particularly harsh on the secondary.
Facyson suffered a concussion during Sunday’s practice, while senior cornerback Kyle Fuller aggravated a groin injury in the middle of the week.
It seems unlikely that either one will play. Facyson was listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report, while Fuller was listed as questionable.
That means the coaches will have to make some adjustments to adequately prepare for David Cutcliffe’s offense, as the Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter explains.
The Hokies will likely use a nickel formation the majority of the time against Duke. Freshman Kendall Fuller is expected to start as the nickelback, with Exum at one corner spot.
Sophomore Donovan Riley or true freshman Chuck Clark could be asked to step in if Kyle Fuller and Facyson cannot go.
If Facyson had been ready to play, he could’ve split snaps with Exum as the redshirt senior got a sense of his health.
Instead, Exum will be thrown right into the fire against Duke’s offense, which is currently scoring 35.7 points per game.
It certainly helps that the staff likely won’t have to choose between starting Exum and Facyson in this one, but that’s an issue that will undoubtedly arise later in the season.
It’s a tough situation for Facyson to deal with, but so far, he’s dealt with Exum’s return admirably.
Few young players would likely handle losing their starting job well, particularly when they’re among the country’s leaders in interceptions. Yet, for now, Facyson is dealing with the change well, as the Daily Press' Norm Wood notes.
However, with Facyson likely sitting the Duke game out, there still hasn’t been a time when the staff has had to tell one player to sit and another to start.
Exum certainly has the proven track record, but what if he struggles against the Blue Devils? If he seems shaky out there, what happens when Facyson is cleared to play again?
It’s a discomforting question for Hokie fans to consider. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster and defensive backs coach Torrian Gray have handled the situation well so far, but there’s no guarantee that continues.
Shaking off the Rust
The simplest way for Exum to solve all these issues would be for him to have a big game against Duke.
While the Blue Devils might seem like an easy opponent for Exum to start off against, they actually present quite the challenge.
Duke is currently throwing for a little over 269 yards per game, and receiver Jamison Crowder is leading the ACC in both receptions and receiving yards.
Crowder, in particular, gave Exum issues at times in last year’s game, as he caught eight balls for 127 yards and a score in the contest.
Just watch this video clip of a pass interference penalty that Crowder draws against Exum.
The cornerback gives Crowder plenty of cushion, but he realizes he’s going to get beat deep if he doesn’t recover.
Exum ends up playing too aggressively, leading to the penalty.
He might’ve spent the last few months on the sidelines, but he’ll need to be sharp and in control against Crowder.
However, it’s not as if this aggressiveness is entirely a bad thing.
After all, this video of his game-sealing interception against the Virginia Cavaliers shows what can happen when he can fight his way in front of a receiver.
Crowder and the rest of Duke’s offense will certainly test Exum, so it’s key that he responds with a big game.
If he struggles, things could get very complicated for Tech’s defense very quickly.
However, Exum has come up big when it matters many times before, so there’s plenty of reason for Hokie fans to be confident.
But no one can deny the importance of Exum’s return. He could make an already dominant defense even better, or he could just as easily divide the locker room and enrage fans.