BLACKSBURG, Va. — Almost nine months after having major knee surgery, Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum barely pondered the question before responding.
The hardest part of ordeal? It happened Jan. 26, during the hours immediately after he lay in pain on the basketball court at McComas Hall on campus, his right knee ripped apart and his future suddenly uncertain.
“That,” Exum said, “was a bad day.”
Saturday should be decidedly better as Exum, a second-team all-ACC selection in 2012, is set to make his season debut when No. 16 Virginia Tech takes on Duke at Lane Stadium. He missed the first seven games of the year recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, lateral and medial meniscus and a bone fracture in his right knee.
But while the first few hours turned out to be the worst, the past few weeks became the most tedious.
After months of establishing aggressive timetables for his return, he was cleared to play by doctors Sept. 30. But Exum then chose to sit out two additional games, the sort of cautious approach that caught many by surprise.
“He’s come a long way in a short amount of time. He was driven,” said Virginia Tech athletic trainer Keith Doolan, who oversaw Exum’s rehabilitation this fall. “But he was hungry, hungry, hungry, and now it’s like, ‘Where is he?’ ”
Exum’s original plan, which he groggily announced to orthopedist James Andrews in a post-surgery fog in February, was to be back in time for Virginia Tech’s season opener against No. 1 Alabama. That fell by the wayside early in August when a follow-up appointment with Andrews revealed he wouldn’t be back until at least the start of ACC play.
Anxious to return before that once the regular season began, Exum soon hinted on Virginia Tech’s weekly radio show there was a chance he could be back in time for the Hokies’ game against Marshall on Sept. 21. The next day, head athletic trainer Mike Goforth said such an arrangement was “news to him.”
Finally, three days after the Hokies began ACC play with a 17-10 win at Georgia Tech, Exum went to Pensacola, Fla., for testing, and Andrews finally cleared him to play. Exum confirmed the news on his Twitter account, declaring that “THE DAYCARE IS NOW OPEN!”
But in the week of practice that followed, Exum’s mind-set changed. He watched the film and didn’t see the same player who led the ACC in pass break-ups a year ago and finished with a team-high five interceptions. As defensive backs coach Torrian Gray put it: “Seeing him move around, the first week you were really concerned. Two weeks ago, he was still, we didn’t think there was any way he could play.”
Before Virginia Tech faced North Carolina on Oct. 5, Exum felt compelled to release a statement explaining why he would not play that week despite being cleared. He admits now he even packed his travel bag in anticipation of being in the lineup for the Hokies’ past two games against the Tar Heels and Pittsburgh.
“I just thought about it a little bit more and thought I was making a decision that was based on the excitement of getting cleared. I kind of was rushing things and running into things. It took me a little while to get over that,” said Exum, who consulted with his family and coaches.
“I wouldn’t say it was a change as far as how hard I was approaching the situation of coming back or how hard I was working, but it may have been a change in my attitude as far as I need to definitely wait until I’m 100 percent or can play at a very high level before I step back out there.”
Exum’s future also played into his decision-making. The fifth-year senior nearly declared for the NFL draft after last season before returning to school. But the emergence of freshman cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller ensured the Hokies didn’t need Exum to hurry back.
“He’s smart enough to know he can’t get out there and not be 100 percent healthy. It doesn’t help him, and it doesn’t help the team,” Gray said.
Exum remains guarded about the parts of his game that are still an issue heading into Saturday’s game, although he’s quick to point out “the huge strides” made since he returned to practice in full. Coach Frank Beamer said “he looked like the old Antone” during special teams drills this past week.
Exum’s return is well timed, as Facyson is listed as doubtful for Saturday’s game because of a concussion suffered in practice last Sunday and senior cornerback Kyle Fuller is questionable because of a groin injury.
Even so, Gray planned to give Exum the start all along, well aware it’s a moment that seemed so uncertain just nine months ago.
“I think about it all the time,” Exum said. “I don’t really know what to expect, except me playing at a high level.”