At the start of the year, many questions surrounded the Hokies’ secondary.
How much would they miss Jayron Hosley and Eddie Whitley? Is Kyle Fuller ready to step up and be the top corner? Will all the position changes be for better or for worse?
After getting embarrassed by two Big East opponents in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati just a month into the season, it looked like the floodgates had completely opened and one of the main players in question was cornerback Antone Exum.
Cincy torched the Hokies for nearly 400 yards through the air and QB Munchie Legeaux picked on the junior cornerback all day.
But since that performance, Exum and the secondary have bounced back and been arguably the strongest facet of the team. They hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer since Legeaux until E.J. Manuel and Florida State last week
But even that stat isn’t totally telling, since the Seminoles passing numbers were inflated due to their inability to run the ball.
Last year, Exum earned honorable mention All-ACC accolades at safety, and in the offseason, was switched to corner. His switch was the most criticized of any during the offseason, and many Hokies fans thought it would end poorly. The learning curve was visibly rough for Exum and it seemed apparent that he was too big and inexperienced to play corner when the season began.
But as the season has marched on, he’s gradually improved his game and is no longer the target of opposing quarterbacks, as well as critics.
No, he’s not a shutdown corner that can be put on an island; yes, opposing quarterbacks still throw his way. But he’s no longer a guaranteed completion or pass interference.
Defensive end James Gayle says that despite the critics, Exum has been one of the most impressive players on the unit.
“If you look at film, he’s in man coverage against the best receiver every game with no safety help,” Gayle said. “So they obviously don’t know what they’re talking about. I guess they take the pass interferences to heart.”
Exum has since looked more comfortable in coverage and has been able to use his physicality to give receivers fits.
Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett took the opposite route of Exum and moved from corner to safety. Both were thought to be too small to play on the back end, but they’ve both been playing well as of late.
Jarrett, known most notably for his electrifying punt return against Pittsburgh, has been playing the rover position, which calls for great speed and size.
Even redshirt-freshman Michael Cole had been having himself a nice year ever since his acrobatic interception against Clemson. He’s since been injured but could still come back this year and contribute.
Unfortunately, Cole suffered a sprained neck last week against the Seminoles and is out for at least this week, with the team taking it day-by-day.
“I saw the replay of how he led with his head so I thought like, ‘Man, this might be a really serious neck injury,'" Exum said. "I was just scared for him. I said a prayer for him and was just trying to hope for the best.”
It’s frustrating for fans, how this season the Hokies have been statistically outplaying opponents, yet still finding ways to lose.
“It’s not something you can really ignore because we haven’t been 4-6 around here in a long time," but I knew we feel like we’re probably the best 4-6 team out there,” he said. "Our record doesn’t indicate how good of a team this is.
"We still have talent and guys that can get it done, but for some reason, the ball just hasn’t been bouncing our way this year and we’ve just to focus on finishing these last two games and getting to a bowl game.”
If this season has taught Tech anything, it’s to never doubt defensive coordinator Bud Foster again.