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Summer Questions Series No. 8: What's happening at cornerback for Virginia Tech?
Virginia Tech's players reported yesterday, meaning pre-season practice is officially upon us and summer is over. The off-season is less than four weeks away from being a thing of the past, but that won't stop us from asking one final summer question: What will assistant coach Torrian Gray do at cornerback this season?
The One Constant
Entering the 2013 season, the only constant is senior Kyle Fuller. He's played extensively since his freshman year, although last year he was really hindered by a shoulder injury. The Kyle Fuller we saw in 2012 was nowhere near as effective as the Kyle Fuller we saw in 2011. His production dropped across the board as he went from 65 tackles to 52 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss to 3.0 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks to zero.
He again had two interceptions, but where Fuller makes his living is being able to come up in run support and make an impact. His shoulder injury last year largely prevented that. However, Fuller returns in 2013 fully healthy and ready to regain his form. If he gets some help from friends and family, that won't be too hard.
First Question: Antone Exum
Exum tied at No. 17 in the country last season in interceptions, with five. During an off-season pickup basketball game in January on campus, he tore his ACL, effectively putting his 2013 season in jeopardy. Exum has worked extremely hard to rehab quickly, but how much and how effective he can be this season remains to be seen. It would be a heroic effort if he was able to play against Alabama in the Georgia Dome, but those chances are very slim.
Realistically, a return against Georgia Tech would still be an unbelievable effort, as that would be eight months since his injury. By all accounts, his progress is ahead of schedule. Assuming he doesn't return for 'Bama, his urgency to return in September as opposed to October or November might depend on how well the youngsters looking to fill his shoes are doing.
Second Question: The Youngsters
Exum's injury opened up a starting spot in the secondary that a number of young corners are looking to fill. Entering August, sophomores Donaldven Manning and Donovan Riley and freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller are looking to be that guy.
Manning and Riley played sparingly last season, giving them a slight head start. Facyson enrolled in January and had as good a spring as one could hope, giving him a slight head start on Fuller, who enrolled over the summer and is just getting his first college football reps under him.
Gray has shown over the years that he isn't afraid to throw someone on the field that shows some natural instincts. Facyson seemed to be that guy in the spring, but the next four weeks will determine for sure.
Third Question: When Exum returns…
This question is solely a hypothetical scenario based on two situations: 1) Exum's return from injury and 2) the success of one of the youngsters. Essentially, the scenario is that Exum returns from his injury and assumes his starting role within the defense opposite of Kyle Fuller. This would create an interesting situation for Gray and defensive coordinator Bud Foster to figure out.
Basically, Kyle Fuller was exceptional in 2011 as a nickel back. He was allowed to essentially cover the slot and really attack the line of scrimmage when his instincts told him to be there. That's how a cornerback records 14.5 tackles for loss. So if Exum returns and one of the youngsters (perhaps even Kyle's little brother) has performed well enough to continue earning reps, will Kyle Fuller return to his nickel back role?
It would require someone to shift from boundary to field or field to boundary, but getting Fuller back into that nickel back role that he was so effective in during the 2011 season could be huge for Foster's defense as ACC play cranks up. Just something to keep an eye on as Exum's return approaches.