BLACKSBURG, Va. — With the interview over and a team meal already underway, Virginia Tech linebacker Tariq Edwards stood from his chair and made way for cornerback Antone Exum before practice Wednesday evening. He might as well have been passing the baton.
Exum looked depressed, his shoulders slumped and a frown on his face. On Monday, he found out from orthopedist James Andrews that his goal of returning from major offseason knee surgery in time for the Hokies’ season opener against two-time defending national champion Alabama had been “far-fetched.” The news, and the realization he likely won’t play for at least two more months, still stung two days later.
Edwards could empathize, having been unable to put his own health-related setbacks behind him in the past 20 months.
The Cheraw, S.C., native enjoyed a breakout 2011 campaign, collecting 71 tackles and 3.5 sacks playing through injury when Virginia Tech’s linebacking corps was battered by various ailments. In the process, though, Edwards suffered a stress fracture in his shin, which later required surgery to insert a rod to stabilize his right leg.
When Edwards tried to return last August, the injury lingered and he was forced to undergo an additional medical procedure to remove a screw from his knee. Even when he did make his way back onto the practice field midway through the 2012 season, Edwards moved with a limp. He appeared in just seven games, finishing with only four tackles.
“Things didn’t go so well,” Edwards said. “I was kind of in a slump for a while, just knowing that I needed to get back into it.”
The redshirt senior says now what he needed most at that point was a diversion, a way to take his mind off feeling like his inability to get back on the field had let his teammates down. Eventually, he found inspiration in his 2-year-old son, Tamir. He was born in December 2010, when Edwards was on a plane headed to the Orange Bowl with Virginia Tech. He got the news from a photo on his cellphone when the team landed in South Florida.
“I wanted to do it for him, provide a good future for him,” said Edwards, who is the son of former Virginia Tech wide receiver Bo Campbell.
It also helped that Edwards’s roommate this year, wide receiver D.J. Coles, was going through his own rehabilitation process. The senior missed almost all of 2012 after re-injuring his knee in Virginia Tech’s first game of the season against Georgia Tech. He was granted a medical redshirt.
Edwards said the two have been able to “lean on each other and uplift each other.” On Monday, for instance, Coles needed Edwards to drive his car home as he limped from the practice facility, his surgically repaired right knee wrapped in ice after Virginia Tech’s first practice of August.
“We both kind of have a little struggle at times. His [injury] may seem a little worse, but I just feel like he’s working,” Edwards said. “At times, I still get a lot of pain, but I just play through it. It just feels good to be out there with my teammates.”
This is the sort of outlook he hopes Exum will embrace, even though Edwards’s own health remains an ongoing issue.
Trainers issued him new orthotics for training camp to help his mobility and eliminate some of the discomfort. He still wears a brace on his right leg.
But the Hokies are counting on Edwards to return to form with very little experience at linebacker behind the starters. At his best, Edwards’s combination of size (6 feet 2, 234 pounds) and speed made him an ideal piece for defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s scheme, with the ability to combat the run and cover receivers in space.
In offseason workouts, however, teammates noticed Edwards’s limp was mostly gone. They’ve seen his disposition change since last fall, a development Exum seemed to take solace in Wednesday.
“He’s looked fluid. He’s looked as healthy as he’s looked in a long time,” Exum said of Edwards. “He’s missed playing kind of like I have and been out for a while. I’m excited that he gets the chance to do what he loves again.”