BLACKSBURG, Va. — The play will be remembered for its flash.
Late in the first quarter of Virginia Tech’s win over East Carolina on Saturday, freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson jumped a slant route by a Pirates wide receiver for his second interception in as many games, showing off the sort of preternatural closing speed that left teammates and fans alike in awe.
But up in the coaches’ box at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Hokies defensive backs coach Torrian Gray was shaking his head in amazement for an entirely different reason. He had just witnessed a mental feat few freshmen could pull off.
Little did anyone realize it was fellow freshman Kendall Fuller who alerted Facyson before the snap to the abnormal splits of East Carolina’s receivers. Gray told both Facyson and Fuller earlier in the game what to expect when the Pirates align two slot receivers closer to the line of scrimmage with a third receiver out wide, but “I knew Kendall would see it and communicate it, so we could get it done,” Gray said Tuesday.
His hunch was right. Fuller studies the habits of slot receivers because of his role in Virginia Tech’s nickel package and said he immediately “knew the route that was coming and knew . . . I didn’t really need help and [Facyson] could play ball.”
“For a true freshman, it’s just awfully impressive to be able to do that in the course of a game,” Gray added. “You’re relying on him to line up and do his assignment and communicate to another true freshman so he can be in position to make a play.”
There has been no bigger development for Virginia Tech’s defense this season than the instant impact provided by Fuller and Facyson, particularly now that senior Antone Exum’s recovery from offseason knee surgery will extend past the start of ACC play.
Gray revealed Tuesday night that Exum, an all-ACC cornerback a year ago, is not scheduled to visit with orthopedist James Andrews about his surgically repaired knee until after Virginia Tech’s game against Georgia Tech on Sept. 26, meaning he won’t be cleared to play before the Hokies face the Yellow Jackets.
But Fuller and Facyson have turned Exum’s absence into an afterthought, although Facyson has made a more tangible difference. Defensive end James Gayle equated his ball-hawking skill-set to former Hokies cornerback Jayron Hosley.
“Some guys have a magnet for the ball. He may be that guy,” said Gray, who noted defensive coordinator Bud Foster has set a goal of creating three turnovers per game this season.
But Fuller, the All-Met Player of the Year out of Good Counsel last year, has not gone unappreciated by the coaching staff. The first five-star recruit to come to Virginia Tech since Tyrod Taylor, he hasn’t been fazed by much since arriving on campus.
The Hokies have used their nickel package more often than not through three games, and Fuller has held his own in the slot. He made several nice break-ups covering Alabama’s Amari Cooper in the season opener, and he was largely responsible for holding East Carolina’s Justin Hardy to six catches for 31 yards Saturday.
Hardy had 16 receptions for 191 yards when the Pirates beat Old Dominion to open the season.
“He has the physical tools, but mentally is what separates him from most true freshmen. That really has me in awe of him more than anything,” Gray said of Fuller. “You expect a guy who’s a five-star recruit to have certain physical abilities, but it’s the mental part that those guys, it takes them until about this time next year to understand and grasp what he does right now.”
Gray was quick to point out Tuesday that Exum would return to being the team’s starting field cornerback when he’s healthy again, with Fuller remaining at nickel cornerback and Facyson assuming a different role. But just like on the field, Fuller and Facyson seem to understand what lies ahead in the future.
Fuller joked Tuesday that the first few games have been refreshing, if only because opponents didn’t really challenge him toward the end of his high school career. But he and Facyson often talk about what it could be like when they are manning both sides of the field in the coming years.
“I don’t feel like I’ve proven myself enough where people can say they’re not gonna throw my way yet,” Fuller said. “But me and him being here, we want to become one of the best secondaries in the country.”