Senior Eddie Whitley looked up at the clouds when asked Tuesday just how good his new partner in Virginia Tech’s defensive backfield could be this season. The sky is the limit for redshirt sophomore Antone Exum, Whitley emphasized, no matter what position he plays.
“He’s just special,” Whitley said. “He’s 220 and can run like a corner. ”
Ever since the 2010 season ended, it’s been a foregone conclusion that Whitley and Exum would team up as the Hokies’ free safety and rover (Virginia Tech’s variation on a strong safety) this season. But Tuesday brought confirmation that the Hokies’ coaching staff has decided the two will swap positions.
Whitley will play rover after starting 13 games at free safety in 2010. Exum, then, will be the team’s free safety after spending spring practice making the transition to rover.
The decision came about two weeks ago, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said, after watching Whitley and Exum play both positions during the first few days of training camp.
Exum, who had a team-high nine pass break-ups as the nickel cornerback and back-up free safety last year, excels in man coverage and is the faster of the two. Whitley, meanwhile, can read the play quicker thanks to his experience and packs more of a punch when he hits.
When Gray sat down with defensive coordinator Bud Foster, it just made sense to put the two at the position that best suits their strengths.
“As long as Antone can handle it from a mental standpoint and an adjustment standpoint, we could do it,” said Gray, because the free safety is expected to make pre-snap coverage calls. “Antone seems like he’s really matured but the biggest thing that allows you to do it is Eddie still can really call the defense from the rover position.”
The free safety generally plays in space and must cover more ground to the field cornerback side. The rover is more of a playmaking spot, freed up to help with the run or pass. Gray said that if the switch doesn’t initially work, “we can always go back,” since Exum and Whitley know both positions.
Exum, who played free safety until the spring, said he was shocked at first when Gray made the announcement that he would be switching positions because Whitley played so many games there last year.
“They’re kind of interchangeable, but I think it’s a little bit more pressure, more responsibility on the free safety,” Exum said. “You’re more on an island.”
Whitley, who had 80 tackles a year ago, says he knows the rover position from having to be aware of where last year’s starter, Davon Morgan, was on every play as part of his free safety responsibilities. Whitley intends to be “like a Polamalu” at rover and emulate the heavy hitting style of the Pittsburgh Steelers safety.
The transition to new roles should be made easier by the chemistry Whitley and Exum say they’ve developed over the course of spring practice and offseason seven-on-seven drills. Whitley says the two know how to disguise their coverages well now, and it’s been wreaking havoc on Virginia Tech’s quarterbacks during practice. Whitley picked off Logan Thomas in last Saturday’s scrimmage.
As for Exum, he could be the Hokies’ secret weapon in the defensive backfield. Like Whitley, Gray raved about how his new starting free safety is “freaky” fast for someone that weighs 220 pounds.
“I feel faster and I feel more confident as well because I know what’s going on,” Exum said. “Last season people start moving and stuff’s going on and my mind’s kind of tying up my feet and I’m standing in the same place. But this year, I’m seeing it. I know the calls. I read my keys. I’m coming straight downhill.” . . .
For Gray, the position switch is the least of his concerns. When it comes to his two safeties, the coach just hopes Whitley and Exum can stay healthy all season because the depth behind them remains a major question mark.
As of right now redshirt sophomore James Hopper is the back-up free safety and Washington area freshmen Boye Aromire (H.D. Woodson) and Ronny Vandyke (South County) are battling for the No. 2 rover spot. After last Saturday’s scrimmage, in which Vandyke suffered a sprained ankle, Aromire has a slight edge.
Gray said all three improved in the Hokies’ second scrimmage but that has only created a new set of fears heading into the season.
“You feel better, but now none of those guys have any true game experience, so you’re still afraid from that standpoint,” Gray said. “You never know how those guys are gonna react.”
Gray said it’s a lock one of those two true freshmen will play this year and there’s a possibility both could see action. He said the team will make a decision about either one taking a redshirt as the season progresses.