The news Virginia Tech fans have been waiting to hear for nearly nine months came tonight, when star cornerback Antone Exum was "cleared to play" by the famous doctor to the star athlete, Dr. James Andrews according to Hokies' defensive backs coach Torrian Gray on Tech Talk Live:
Coach Gray says #Hokies defensive back Antone Exum has been cleared to play. Exum saw Dr. Andrews today.— Tech Talk LIVE! (@VT_TTL) September 30, 2013
Exum, who injured himself in January while playing a basketball game, was recovering from surgery to fix his ACL, his lateral and medial menisci and a bone fracture in his right knee. He originally declared he would be back for the Hokies' season-opener against Alabama, despite many who doubted that timetable was possible. Ultimately, Exum was not able to recover by then, but by all accounts, gave his absolute best to do so. When the Alabama game rolled around, it was announced he was only between 70-85% and that he would not even be re-evaluated for another two months.
While he hoped to be able to return against Georgia Tech (last Thursday) to begin ACC play, he was not cleared to do so until today, meaning he will have missed at least five games this season. He is not currently eligible for a sixth year of eligibility, and even if it were granted, he would likely try to leave to enter the NFL Draft, as he received positive draft projections from the NFL Draft Advisory Board a year ago, but opted to return for his senior year.
It is not clear what role he will play, as at one point coaches said he would come back as the unquestioned starter. But the secondary, with two freshman cornerbacks playing prominently, has been among the Hokies strengths, and with Exum still possibly not ready for a major workload, the coaches have backed off of that statement:
Gray on Exum's return: "He has to be eased in naturally, so there will be some transition." Will meet as staff to discuss it. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) September 30, 2013
However, for those clamoring for an Exum return to safety, perhaps resulting in the benching of or platooning with Detrick Bonner, Gray essentially put the moratorium on that thought:
Gray said Antone Exum is a cornerback and will remain so. "When he's full-go, he's going to play cornerback." #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) September 30, 2013
Exum, who was a safety in his first two seasons on the field with the Hokies, was moved to cornerback prior to last season. Despite a litany of early season struggles and penalties, Exum improved throughout the year and eventually became one of the Hokies best defensive players. He finished the season with 48 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, 5 interceptions, 16 pass breakups, 21 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Those accomplishments landed him on the 2012 Second-Team All-ACC squad, as well as the 2012 Coaches All-ACC Second Team. He was also named the Russell Athletic Bowl MVP and Sports Illustrated named him 2012 Honorable Mention All-American and 2012 All-Bowl Team. Despite his injury and the unlikelihood that he would return for the opener, Exum was still third in the voting for cornerbacks on the pre-season All-ACC team.
Perhaps Exum's return will allow Kyle Fuller to see more looks at whip linebacker, a position he's played a significant amount of time at and excelled in the other night against Georgia Tech. That would make the Hokies' defense perhaps even more formidable than it is now. But until we see him on the field, it is unclear where, when and how much he will play.
For more updates on Exum and Virginia Tech football as we continue through this 2013 season, Gobbler Country is your best bet. Make sure to stick with us here throughout the season and beyond.