By all measures, Virginia Tech boasted an impressive defense in 2013.
It finished first in the ACC in rushing defense last season, allowing an average of just 110.9 yards per game. And there was no shame in finishing second to national champion Florida State in scoring defense (19.3 ppg), passing defense (172.3 ypg) and total defense (283.2 ypg).
Had Virginia Tech been able to feature cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum on the field at the same time, the defense may have been downright lethal. Unfortunately for the Hokies, when Fuller was healthy, Exum was hurt. And vice versa.
"I think we were the best two corners in the ACC last year, but we rarely got to play with each other," said Exum at the NFL Combine. "We played with each other for a like a play against Miami I think. They didn't get to really feel us like we wanted teams to feel us."
The NFL, however, should feel the impact of these two cornerbacks for years to come. In less than two weeks, both figure to be drafted, Fuller likely in the first round. Exum, if he had not possessed such a lengthy injury history, probably wouldn't be taken much later.
Most cornerbacks are known for known for the coverage skills, their ballhawking ability. It's not as if Fuller and Exum don't excel against the pass, but the first word that likely describes them both is "physical."
Asked to describe the best part of his game, Fuller responds, “Just how physical I am. I feel like my speed, my playmaking ability, my ability to tackle.”
As a sophomore, Fuller had 14.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks, eye-popping statistics for a defensive back. While the tackle numbers decreased the last two seasons, Fuller became a more well-rounded cornerback.
It didn't matter whether it was the field side or boundary side or shifting inside to cover the slot receiver, Fuller did it all.
“I don’t know what it is," said Fuller. "I feel comfortable playing in the nickel, playing outside. I just want to be versatile.”
There are cornerbacks that timed faster than Fuller's 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and there are plenty that measured in bigger than Fuller's 6' 0" and 190 pounds.
But there may not be a cornerback in this year's draft class that has the diverse skill set Fuller possesses, similar to what the Packers saw with Charles Woodson in his prime: an ability to play on the outside in a base defense and shift inside in the subpackages.
"The Fuller kid I really like," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I have got him as my third ranked corner. I think he's a first-round talent. He's long; he tackles; he has ball skills."
Recovery from a sports hernia surgery that took place this past November doesn't appear to be hindering either Fuller or his draft stock.
Exum is also physical and versatile in his own right. Some even consider him a safety because of his thick 6' 0" and 213-pound frame. It's a position he played early in his career at Virginia Tech before becoming a full-time cornerback.
Don't tell Exum he's a safety, however.
"I think I'm the best corner in the draft, to be honest," said Exum. "That's just how I feel about it. I don't know why I would play safety when I feel like that."
According to Exum, he hasn't heard from any NFL teams that he's anything but a cornerback, although it's difficult to tell if he's only hearing what he wants to hear.
Regardless, Exum did play cornerback at a very high level when he was fully healthy his junior season in Blacksburg, Va. He intercepted five passes, broke up, and made 48 tackles, 1.5 for a loss and forced two fumbles. Somehow he was named only second-team All-ACC.
The job for Exum now becomes convincing teams that he's put his injury troubles behind him.
Before his senior season, Exum tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game. Then just as he was starting a mid-season comeback, an ankle injury sidelined Exum three games into his 2013 campaign.
"The injury thing is tough on him because he's a good football player and I kind of wanted to know, was he a corner, because of his size, can he play safety and how well?" said Mayock.
Based on mediocre results in drills at the NFL Combine, Exum may not be 100 percent recovered from either injury, but he at least appears to be making progress.
The health situation may prevent teams from making a high-round investment into Exum, but his size and potential could make him an intriguing mid-round selection.
"I think the big corner is becoming more valuable in the league just because of the NFL having trouble with receivers like A.J. Green, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, guys like that," said Exum. "So I think they're looking for big guys like myself that can match up and be more disruptive with those bigger receivers."
The same could be said of Fuller too.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller by Brian Carriveau.
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