BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech senior cornerback Kyle Fuller paused and carefully considered his next words, not wanting to sound selfish. He acknowledged, in retrospect, his decision to ask out of the game last month was “one of the hardest decisions” he ever made on a football field.
Just minutes before kickoff against Miami on Nov. 9, even Fuller’s teammates and coaches were unsure whether he would be in uniform. But after playing the best seven games of his career, Fuller had been mostly relegated to the sidelines thanks to an abdominal injury suffered during Virginia Tech’s bye three weeks earlier. So he chose to push through the pain.
“I had been playing well, and I just wanted to keep playing. Against Miami, it was ‘I gotta play,’ ” he said earlier this month. “I started thinking in pregame, ‘It’s gonna hurt regardless.’ I could feel it, but maybe it was more of my want to play that was blocking that out. . . .
“Honestly, and this is one of the reasons I felt bad after the game, I kind of knew after the first play. I didn’t feel comfortable.”
The second play confirmed his worst fears. Miami wide receiver Stacy Coley took an innocent screen pass 81 yards for a touchdown. Fuller, unable to chase down Coley, trudged to a sideline phone and called defensive backs coach Torrian Gray with the words that effectively ended his regular season: “Coach, I can’t go.”
Fuller recounts this story with only a few regrets. The Hokies ended up beating Miami, 42-24, and he could return to the field one last time when Virginia Tech faces No. 17 UCLA in the Sun Bowl on Tuesday.
The Baltimore native, hampered by injuries a year ago as well, watched Virginia Tech lose three of its final five games without him in the lineup, a “what if” that will follow him into the NFL draft.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has since declared this year’s defense, which finished the regular season ranked fourth in the nation, to be “an ACC championship defense, if not a national championship-type defense.” Even he wonders, though, how good the Hokies could have been if their secondary had remained healthy.
Fuller, who led the ACC in pass breakups before his injury, ended up having surgery in Philadelphia after the Miami game and hasn’t played since. He and fellow senior cornerback Antone Exum, who missed the first six games recovering from offseason knee surgery and suffered an ankle injury at Miami that will keep him out of the Sun Bowl, played just two snaps together the entire season.
In their place, though, freshman Kendall Fuller, Kyle’s younger brother, took the mantle as Virginia Tech’s top cornerback and didn’t disappoint. Theone-time All-Met Player of the Year from Good Counsel was named a freshman all-American and the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year. In addition to earning all-ACC second-team honors, the younger Fuller lived up to his stature as Virginia Tech’s first five-star recruit in five years by finishing with a team-high six interceptions and playing three positions.
Kyle also saw significant playing time as a freshman but remarks “it’s crazy how Kendall’s doing this.”
“I’ve never seen a freshman come in with that good a football IQ,” senior linebacker Jack Tyler said of Kendall. Older brothers Vincent and Corey Fuller also previously played at Virginia Tech.
“Normally you see freshmen come in and they feel like they’ve arrived, and you kind of have to kick them down a little bit, send them back to earth. But Kendall wasn’t like that. He came in, wanted to learn right away, wanted to be the best player on the team right away, and he’s worked really hard to get there.”
Since the season ended, Kyle’s early-season efforts were also validated when he was the lone Virginia Tech player to earn first-team all-ACC honors from the league’s coaches and second-team all-American honors from the Walter Camp Foundation. But it’s Kendall who has served as his motivation through another injury.
The two brothers had never played on the same team before this season, and “he wants to play one more time with me,” Kendall said.
That remains complicated given Kyle’s NFL hopes and his recovery from surgery. Though he wonders what his stock would be if he were healthy the entire season, Kyle understands his most important audition will arrive in the coming weeks when he participates in the Senior Bowl and shows pro scouts he can play either cornerback or safety at the next level. Coach Frank Beamer told reporters in El Paso on Saturday afternoon that Kyle is doubtful to play.
The decision to play in the bowl game, though, probably will come at the last minute, much like in Miami last month. Gray will leave it up to Kyle again, if only because “a big part of it is he wants to finish off with his brother.”
“This season just brought us closer, just being with him all the time and being able to feed off each other,” Kyle said. “Hopefully, I can be out there with him.”