The Hokies were dealt a damaging blow after the first practice of the season this week as they learned that corner Antone Exum had been ruled out for the season opener against Alabama.
Exum, who was a key piece of the Hokies defense last season, tore his ACL last spring while playing pick-up basketball. It was hoped that he would be recovered in time for him to play in the opener against national powerhouse Alabama, but after a visit with his orthopedic surgeon, it was determined that Exum’s knee is not ready.
"It’s just one of those things that takes time," head coach Frank Beamer said. "I think in a couple months they’re going to re-evaluate, and it just needs to be right for him and for us. It is what it is.”
This news, while not unexpected, is a big blow for Tech’s secondary. Exum was named the MVP of the Russell Athletic Bowl last December after his interception led to the Hokie’s victory.
The most likely candidates to replace Exum are Brandon Facyson, a true freshman, and Donaldven Manning, a sophomore. Right now the players are listed as co-starters on the depth chart.
Though Facyson is only a freshman, he has already impressed coaches with his skills.
“Facyson had a good practice tonight,” Beamer said. “I noticed him a couple of times. I think he is a sharp guy that has some height and ability… Exum is playing at such a high level, but another guy just needs to step up and play at that level too.”
Freshman Kendall Fuller is also looking to get a lot of playing time. He comes to Tech as the No. 2 cornerback in the nation and many thought he would fill in while Exum is injured. However, defensive coordinator Bud Foster wants to start Fuller out at nickelback.
“We want a guy who can be a cover guy and who can run our defense, someone we can bring pressure with – just like his brother (Kyle) did,” Foster said. “That’s when we’ve played our best football, when that guy is a playmaker and can run our defense.”
Beamer agrees with Foster and wants to use talented players like Fuller early on before they can leave for the NFL.
“I think he is a bright, smart guy and the family genes all point to him being a really good player,” Beamer said. “We are going to put him in that position and let him go… When you got good players you need to go ahead and play them.”
Also annouced after practice was that wide receiver Joel Caleb may be taking some snaps as a running back this season, but not in the Alabama game. Caleb has been suspended for one game for breaking team rules.
Caleb has been able to practice with the team and is working on learning the new position of tailback.
Shane Beamer, running backs coach, explained that since the team lost Michael Holmes they are in need of another big back.
“It was a little bit of a situation when we lost Michael,” Beamer said. “Trey (Edmunds) was the only big back that we had… Good things happen when the ball is in Joel’s hands.”
New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes is willing to mix things up to get the best possible players on the field.
“There will still be a lot of musical chairs going on in the offensive line… You will see the depth chart change, almost daily,” he said. “I’m still not in a position where I’m ready to say that this guy is best at this spot. I’m certainly not ready to say who our best five are yet. That was the first thing I told them at our meeting - nobody’s earned a spot yet. That’s what training camp is for.”
Grimes stuck by his word, as the depth chart has already been switched around since Monday’s practice.
Corey Marshall will spend training camp working as both defensive end and tackle. He is learning the tackle position to help with depth.
“We talked to Corey as a defensive staff yesterday,” Foster said. “I like where we are with our ends. We’ve got some experience, and I like the emergence of Dadi Nicholas, so I think we’ve got four guys (at end), and we’re trying to get our eight best defensive linemen out there.
With returning stars like James Gayle, Luther Maddy, Derrick Hopkins and J.R. Collins and some new, but impressive players like Dadi Nicholas the defensive line is looking strong and experienced. However, right now the first string spots are still undecided.
Beamer was very pleased with how the kicking game is coming along. He took time to mention how impressed he was with walk-on kicker Mitchell Ludwig’s performance.
“If Ludwig can continue the way he did tonight … I mean he was knocking them to the back of the end zone and out of the end zone,” he said. “So that takes care of the kickoff return.”