After being a vital piece to the Virginia Tech defense in the first three years of his career, cornerback Antone Exum went through the most trying period of his football career. Returning from an ACL tear in the seventh game of the year, Exum participated in three games before shutting it down for the last three.
However, that hasn't kept NFL teams from having a serious interest in selecting Exum in the upcoming draft, which starts Thursday. And Exum feels like he's put himself in good position to find a home with a team.
"I've literally had interest from every single team, which is a huge blessing," he said. "I feel 100 percent confident about [my knee] moving foward, it feels excellent now and will only continue to get better…I definitely have an increased appreciation for the smaller things that come with the game: practice, working out, game days, team activities, etc. I love this game dearly and to be away from it for so long was extremely difficult."
Since the NFL combine in which Exum produced impressive numbers (35 inch vertical, 4.59 second 40-yard dash, and 117 inch broad jump), he's met with the Cardinals, Dolphins, Chargers, Eagles, Browns, Titans, Bucs, Falcons, and Panthers. There are a lot of things that those teams like about the Glen Allen, Va. native.
"They like my size and speed combination, ball skills, cover skills, tackling ability, football IQ, character, play making ability at big time moments, and the "it" factor," Exum said.
He also believes that he's made plenty of improvements since his final season ended.
"Health is the number one thing, I feel great," Exum said. "Also, I've become a better football player, period, since my injury. I didn't just approach the off-season with a mindset of coming back but to come back a better player. I feel like I have made tremendous strides with technique and I always look to broaden my mental approach to the game."
Exum, represented by Ben Dogra and Bob Lattinville of CAA (Creative Artist Agency), appears to be wanted as a cornerback by numerous teams. NFL.com has Exum projected as a third or fourth-round pick. It's quite impressive given the fact that he's only played at the corner position for two years.
"I've only been at the position for two years," Exum said. "I believe that I have all the tools to be a very high level cornerback at the next level, and in my first year at cornerback I covered and had success against top notch wide receivers. With that being said I am definitely open to whatever a team wants to me to do. If you want to move me to safety, then I'll help the defense win the best of my ability. I just hope they understand the worth, there is no other safety in the draft with the amount of successful corner experience I've had against first round talents. So in essence, you're getting a corner who has played safety as well, someone who can come in an add rare value. A starting safety, nickel, and corner when asked."
That versatility is sure to help Exum's draft stock. While Exum is certainly looking forward to accepting a new challenge at the highest level, he still looks back on his time at Virginia Tech fondly. After four seasons played in which Exum recorded 186 tackles, 36 breakups, 42 passes defended, 6 interceptions, and 5 forced fumbles, he has plenty of his favorite memories in Blacksburg.
"I'll miss the relationships the most, although they will never end," Exum said. "The back to back game winning performances vs. UVA and Rutgers was an exciting time period. And more importantly, historical wins for the team."
This weekend's draft will also be a historical milestone for the Hokies. Along with Exum, fellow cornerback Kyle Fuller is expected to be chosen in the early rounds. It will be the first time Virginia Tech has two cornerbacks drafted since Ike Charlton (second round to Seattle) and Anthony Midget (fifth round to Atlanta) in 2000.
"We want to be the best, legends," Exum said. "It's a complete blessing for us to be in this position, which is a start of a professional journey with hopefully many more blessings to come. I just concentrate on being perfect at whatever I'm asked to do. I know perfection won't be reached but in the attempt I can reach excellence."