The reporter had barely finished asking the question during Virginia Tech’s media day last week, but redshirt junior Antone Exum already had an answer. Perhaps the most outspoken member of the Hokies’ defense this year, Exum was compelled to put his unit’s potential into perspective.
“We feel like we have the talent on our side of the ball to be the best defense that’s ever come through here,” he said.
What Exum didn’t mention, however, is that it’s the success of his move from safety to cornerback that very well could be the determining factor in whether his statement rings true. And if this past Saturday’s scrimmage was any indication, the transition will take center stage throughout the season.
Unlike his days as a safety, when he relished the big hit and could rely on veterans to correct his alignment mistakes, Exum was out on an island for all to see and the results showed that he remains something of a work in progress at cornerback.
He was beat on a couple short passes, slipping on an out pattern by wide receiver Corey Fuller at one point and leaving him wide open for a completion. But Exum also showed off the physicality and athletic ability that got him on the field two years ago as a redshirt freshman, out-jumping and out-muscling 6-foot-4 wide receiver Marcus Davis to break up a long pass into the end zone by quarterback Logan Thomas.
But the solitude and black-and-white nature of the position is just the sort of spotlight that Exum enjoys.
“Probably just being out there alone by myself, not really much to rely on,” Exum said when asked to describe his favorite part about playing cornerback. “It’s just you and the receiver and you have to win. I kind of like the separation out there. It’s a challenge for me every time I line up out there versus a receiver. I like that part of it.”
Thomas praised Exum’s instincts after the scrimmage, noting that he is hard to throw on because at 6-1, 224 pounds, he’s larger than the average cornerback. Exum, who led the team with 89 tackles a year ago, also has some previous experience that he can lean on.
Back in 2010, Exum emerged as Virginia Tech’s best option at nickel cornerback and he finished the year with a team-high nine pass break-ups. Playing the position gave Exum a sense of what it takes to play man-to-man coverage, although since he was often on the field with future NFL corners Rashad Carmichael and Jayron Hosley, opponents tended to throw Exum’s way more often than not. Remaining consistent in both his technique and performance have been the focus since training camp began.
“The main thing was just getting a lot of reps under my belt, the little nuances of corner that you can only find out with multiple repetition,” Exum said. “There was just certain things I would know at safety because I’ve been playing it for longer. But at corner, I wouldn’t know without those reps. That’s been a big thing, trying to take advantage of these reps.”
More importantly, with a second-team secondary that is full of freshmen and other untested entities, defensive coordinator Bud Foster needs Exum’s growing pains kept to a minimum.
As Exum put it Saturday, “I know we are kind of slim, we’re kind of young at that position.”