Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum was in the middle of an interview earlier this week when defensive coordinator Bud Foster walked into the room and began listening in. Soon, as reporters grilled Exum about his uneven performance against Cincinnati last weekend, Foster’s eyes narrowed. He even let out a muffled snarl upon hearing one question.
By the time it was his turn to talk, Foster was ready to explode in defense of his players. What ensued was an expletive-laden rant that, even 48 hours after the fact, showed just how unfamiliar these Hokies are with seeing their secondary beaten on a regular basis.
“I don’t care who was at the boundary corner. [Cincinnati would] attack that,” Foster said. “You could have put [former Hokies great] DeAngelo Hall over there and they would have done the same thing.”
One of Virginia Tech’s worst preseason fears was realized this week, and not just because it enters Saturday’s matchup against North Carolina with losses in two of its past three games. With few experienced defensive backs, the Hokies knew they couldn’t suffer any injuries, and the coaches decided to move Exum, a junior, from safety to cornerback and sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner from cornerback to safety to get game-tested players on the field.
But the shake-up hasn’t worked out seamlessly. Exum has looked uncomfortable in a new position, and it culminated with two major penalties and a few breakdowns in pass coverage and tackling against the Bearcats. Bonner also has had hiccups adjusting to a new position, although Foster indicated this week he’s “improving.”
“I kind of liked that they were trying me like that,” said Exum, who expected to see plenty of action because Virginia Tech planned to play man-to-man coverage against Cincinnati. “I like that challenge, that they felt like they could do that. I felt like they couldn’t but on some of those plays, they got the best of me.”
The lack of depth remains a huge concern. With few options available, the Hokies have turned to redshirt freshman safety Michael Cole and freshman cornerback Donaldven Manning, and both were the primary culprits on Cincinnati touchdowns.
Cole’s missed assignment left running back Ralph David Abernathy wide open for a 76-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, but it was Manning who was in the spotlight. The Miami native entered the game early in the second half when cornerback Kyle Fuller went down with leg cramps, and Cincinnati targeted him for two straight completions, including a 29-yard touchdown pass.
In retrospect, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray called it a “nightmare scenario.”
“That was one of the worst feelings of my life,” Manning said. “I’ve never been attacked like that. As a man, beyond a football player, it made me feel a little weak.”
These sorts of struggles are foreign territory for the Hokies, at least recently.
At least one Virginia Tech defensive back has been chosen in the NFL draft every year since 1999, and Foster has always been keen on leaving his defensive backs on an island in order to dial up blitzes and stop the run at the line of scrimmage. Gray said those sorts of expectations won’t change based on one game, especially because opposing quarterbacks are still only completing 53.2 percent of their passes against the Hokies this year.
The team has worked Bonner more at cornerback this week in case he’s needed there, but it won’t get any easier for Virginia Tech’s secondary. Starting with North Carolina on Saturday, the Hokies’ next five games are against teams with passing offenses ranked in the top 32 nationally. That’s not the best antidote for a defense that has allowed eight passing plays of more than 30 yards this year.
“I thought with the exception of about five plays, we played a helluva football game. But that’s gonna get you beat at this level,” Foster said in one of the rare PG-rated moments Monday night concerning the Cincinnati loss.
Even Fuller, a preseason all-ACC selection, hasn’t been immune. He allowed Cincinnati wide receiver Damon Julien to get behind him on the game-winning touchdown, something he called “the worst mistake you can make.” Foster said it was a simple coverage scheme that he would call again in that situation.
Fuller “should’ve been fair-catching the ball,” he added.
Instead, Kyle Fuller sat in front of his locker after the game with his head down. Older brother Corey Fuller, who had caught the 56-yard touchdown pass that put the Hokies in the lead late, came over to console him. Corey gave Kyle a hug and offered reassurance.
“It’s okay. Everything isn’t going to be perfect,” Corey Fuller said of the conversation. “Let it go. You’re a great defensive back.”
It’s a message the entire secondary can appreciate at this point.