The biggest looming question of off-season for the Hokies was answered last night when it was announced that returning starter Antone Exum would miss the Alabama game with the injuries he suffered in a pick up basketball game in January. Those injuries were a torn ACL, a tear of both his lateral and medial menisci and a bone fracture in his right knee.
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.
So who will replace Exum against Alabama and the month at a minimum he will miss before returning to Dr. James Andrews to have his leg re-evaluated? Will it be one player? A combination of players? And what happens if Antone is STILL not 100% by the time that checkup has occurred? Is it even worth trying to bring him back this season at that point? Would he be receptive to giving up on this season applying for a sixth year of eligibility? These are all questions that must be asked, because given what we're hearing from the medical personnel involved, they are all real possibilities.
The answer to the first couple of questions seems to be that some combination of Donaldven Manning, Brandon Facyson, or even Donovan Riley or Davion Tookes. Unfortunately, the fact is that none of those players have significant experience on the field or in the program, as all are true sophomores or younger. Manning also showed his youth and inexperience a year ago, playing poorly in the first part of the season before leaving the team altogether for a short period of time. Furthermore, starting your first ever game against a two-time defending national champion is no easy task.
As for a more specific timetable on Exum's return, here's what SB Nation College Football's Steven Muma said:
"Exum said in July that he still hoped to return in time for Virginia Tech's opener against Alabama, but the odds of that were never very good. Now it appears he is looking at an early-October return, barring setbacks, and if he is able to get back around that time, he'll be able to suit up for the majority of the Hokies' conference schedule. He is most likely to miss the team's conference-opener at Georgia Tech on Sept. 26, which is a critical division game, and the Hokies host North Carolina on Oct. 5."
So assuming that's a pretty accurate projection (I think it is), at that point, Exum would have missed five games in all. While that's essentially half of the regular season, it's also only one conference game, as Muma pointed out. But, assume that Exum gets the checkup at that time and is not given the green light. At what point, if any, does the coaching staff cut their losses and move on? At what point does it become unrealistic to think that he can come back at all this season? After all, players who come back in the middle of the season are not often given favorable eligibility rulings compared to those who play in the first couple of games in a season before getting injured and missing the remainder of the year.
The coaching staff must know what Antone's feelings are about a sixth year of eligibility should he not be able to return until later in the season. My guess is, if he's open to a sixth year, and if the staff is as well, he may be held out the entire year and bank on that. But if he is unwilling to apply for that sixth year, chances are they get him on the field for two reasons: 1. He would then not be coming back for a sixth year, so they would want to use him, and 2. Because Exum opted to come back to Tech at the end of last season instead of entering the draft, something he could've done, he may have hurt his stock with the injury should he not play. Sometimes an injury can be the difference between a high-round selection and going undrafted. So it will be incumbent upon Exum, if he should play, to make sure he's not leaving on a sour note, to show that he has recovered and that he has made his best case to be drafted.
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