BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum said he was more anxious than nervous as he sat in a Pensacola, Fla., doctor’s office Monday afternoon waiting to hear the final verdict from orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.
After eight months of rehab following offseason microfracture surgery, Exum’s return to the football field had come down to a series of tests administered by Andrews’s staff 90 minutes prior to his scheduled appointment. Exum treated it like he was playing a game, knowing he would have to perform well to gain full clearance.
The redshirt senior’s optimism derived from the hours of work put in since he originally tore his ACL, lateral and medial meniscus and suffered a bone fracture in his right knee playing pickup basketball last January. Still, finally hearing the good news, that he could return to game action, was a welcome relief.
“It was in my head, ‘What if I don’t know what’s best and he just comes in and is like, ‘Nah, five more weeks,’ ” Exum said Tuesday after his first uninhibited practice of the season. “I would be crushed. So I was just happy I performed well.”
Exum will be back in Virginia Tech’s lineup Saturday against North Carolina after a successful follow-up appointment with Andrews, and his return has created a ripple effect throughout the Hokies’ depth chart. Though he must prove he’s close to full strength during practice this week, Exum will likely re-assume his field cornerback spot and force freshman Brandon Facyson into a more limited role defensively.
It’s something of a quandary considering Facyson is tied for the national lead with four interceptions in five games, one shy of setting Virginia Tech’s freshman record. Exum, meanwhile, earned second team all-ACC honors a year ago when he led the Hokies with five interceptions and finished with a league-high 16 pass breakups.
The Hokies also have senior cornerback Kyle Fuller, who leads the team with six pass breakups this year, and his younger brother, Kendall, who will remain as the team’s nickel cornerback with Exum back. All four could eventually play in the NFL, an embarrassment of riches few programs in the country enjoy these days.
“I guess it’s better to have more than you need than not enough,” defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said Tuesday night. “We went through that last year, scrambling to find our identity on the back end. And this year, it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ I don’t want to say you got too many, because when you say that, then all of a sudden you get a couple guys down. But right now . . . I look at the guys and I’m like, ‘Man, we’re pretty talented.’ Now, it’s figure it out.”
To help deal with the logjam, Coach Frank Beamer announced Wednesday that Facyson will practice at wide receiver with the hope that he can contribute in specific packages moving forward. Facyson had 31 receptions for 439 yards and four touchdowns playing both ways at Northgate High in Newnan, Ga., last year.
The Hokies have done this previously with former cornerbacks Victor “Macho” Harris, DeAngelo Hall and Ike Charlton. None had more than eight catches in a receiving role, but Beamer said Facyson is simply too talented to keep off the field.
“There’s very few guys that have the ability to play both offense and defense, and I think Brandon’s one of those guys,” Beamer said. “He’s been exceptional on defense. Shown great hands. A couple interceptions he’s made have been fantastic catches. He’s long. He’s fast. He’s smart. I think he can really help us on offense.”
Beamer added that Facyson still projects as a cornerback long term, and how much he plays on offense immediately will depend on how quickly he picks up his limited menu of plays and how healthy Exum looks by the end of this week. Gray said he expects Exum and Facyson to split reps down the middle at cornerback against the Tar Heels.
Exum, Gray noted, still has some rust to shake off based on Tuesday’s practice and both were adamant that there was no thought of moving Exum back to safety so that he and Facyson could be on the field at the same time. Exum played safety his first three years on campus before moving to cornerback before the 2012 season.
Gray expects it will take Exum at least a couple weeks to resemble the player he was at the end of last year, but the Glen Allen, Va., native said Tuesday he isn’t worried about being in game shape. He did admit, however, to being concerned about tackling receivers to the ground since he hasn’t done it since last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. Andrews has ordered Exum initially wear a knee brace during games.
As for upstaging the team’s dynamic freshman cornerbacks, Exum acknowledged how well Facyson and Kendall Fuller have played through five games. But he also didn’t seem too torn about their lost playing time, noting, “I really don’t know what else to say about that. I don’t want to say anything wrong.”
“I mean this is the best dilemma we could have, having a lot of playmakers and trying to decide who to put on the field,” Exum said. “That’s not something I’m sure [the coaches] are gonna lose too much sleep over.”