When Virginia Tech rising redshirt junior Antone Exum heard the news that cornerback James Farrow would be transferring, he began thinking outside the box and wondered if the Hokies’ coaching staff would ask him to help fill the void. Never, though, did he anticipate becoming a full-time cornerback after spending his career as a safety.
But this week, that’s exactly the situation Exum finds himself in, and he seems to be embracing the position change. A year after leading the Hokies in tackles (89) splitting time at both safety spots, Exum’s development opposite returning starting cornerback Kyle Fuller will be a crucial part of Virginia Tech’s spring practice.
“Right now I have the attitude I’m gonna be the starting corner when the season arrives. That’s how I’m carrying it, that’s how I’m approaching the meetings, that’s how I’m gonna practice,” Exum said Wednesday after the team’s first practice. “I just see it as a new challenge and I’m not gonna go into it thinking I’m not gonna excel at it. I’m gonna be confident out there, just like I was today.”
But Exum never played cornerback in high school. His only real experience came as a redshirt freshman two years ago when he emerged as a dependable nickel cornerback, primarily covering receivers in the slot.
That, though, is different than the island he’ll now be on as the team’s starting boundary cornerback. Secondary coach Torrian Gray said Wednesday he’s hopeful that by the end of the spring, Exum “can eventually be natural with it, and even if he’s not natural with it, that he can be productive and be able to be a force for us at that position. He’s 220 pounds, so he may not look the most natural, but as long as he can cover and pick up the assignments and those things, I think it’ll be a good move for us.”
As for Exum’s counterpart at cornerback, Fuller, the rising junior is looking stronger than ever after a breakout sophomore campaign that saw him emerge as the MVP of Bud Foster’s defense. But Gray said when Fuller returned from winter break in January, he weighed in at just 181 pounds.
So the coa ch made it a point to tease the Baltimore native about how he’s considered a big cornerback and that he needed him to be 10 pounds heavier. Fuller came to spring practice Wednesday weighing 189 pounds and appeared noticeably bigger in a good way.
“He really took that to heart and started eating differently and lifting hard,” Gray said. “He has maxed out on his weight during his time here.”
Fuller’s added strength make him and Exum one imposing cornerback duo, although Exum said he’s aware his position could change again if former cornerbacks Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett don’t assimilate well to playing safety.
The Hokies are extremely thin in the secondary this year, with unknowns littering the two-deep behind the four starters. Currently the backup cornerbacks are freshman Donaldven Manning and redshirt sophomore Carl Jackson, while the reserves as safety include redshirt freshman Michael Cole and sophomore Boye Aromire (H.D. Woodson). Of those four, only Aromore saw action last year, and most of that was on special teams.
But rather than worry about the potential landmines that lay ahead after the spring, Exum is simply excited about the possibilities this re-configured defensive backfield presents.
Fuller “can go out there and cover with the best of them, and I feel like I can go out there and cover with the best of them as well,” Exum said. “You put that together and then you put how physical both of us are – me having the safety experience and being a big guy and Kyle kind of being a big corner and being aggressive with his experience last year basically at that whip position — I think we’ll be a great tandem.
“I think I just need to show them that I can be consistent, and that I can be reliable out there and a guy that can make plays.”