- - Thursday, September 8, 2011

BLACKSBURG, Va. — The week of the Virginia Tech-East Carolina game last season, redshirt freshman Antone Exum approached defensive backs coach Torrian Gray. Exum, a backup free safety, felt troubled by his mental lapses in practice, and uncertain about his readiness to play a major role in Tech’s nickel package against the Pirates.

It was an unfamiliar feeling for Exum, who had always excelled in school and football. He asked Gray if they could meet and watch extra film together. So beginning that week, and for the rest of the season, they sat together in Tech’s defensive backs meeting room, along with true freshman cornerback Kyle Fuller.

They met at 7 a.m., Monday through Thursday, and reviewed video of the previous practice and that week’s opponent, so Exum had a head start on what Gray would cover in that afternoon’s meeting when he installed the game plan. Exum jotted down notes in the morning and reviewed them before the afternoon session. Eventually, he was able to pick up an opponent’s smallest tendencies, like when an offensive lineman leaned forward more aggressively in his stance, giving away that the next play would be a run.

But Exum was far from perfect in 2010. His mental errors were typical of a freshman, and probably exacerbated by the fact that he played in a defense at Deep Run High that demanded no pre-snap reads from its safeties.

“Even when I first got here and I was redshirting, I felt physically, I had to the ability to be on the field,” Exum said. “But it’s always the understanding of the defense, being able to make the calls, that was holding me back. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any natural football sense. It was just that I just hadn’t seen it before.”

East Carolina week is here again, Tech’s second game of 2011, and the Pirates’ passing-focused no-huddle offense will challenge Exum, now the starting free safety. Senior Eddie Whitley was scheduled to play there again this year, with Exum starting at strong safety. But Gray switched them because Exum has better one-on-one coverage skills. Whitley still makes the pre-snap reads — normally the free safety’s job.

“Last year was just getting him to the point of being able to function for the defense,” Gray said. “Now Antone gets to go into that position slowly, and by next year’s time, he’ll definitely be ready to take over.”

Preparation has never been a problem for Exum. His parents and his own natural competitive spirit made sure of that.

Exum’s father, Antone Sr., is a dentist, and his mother, Barbara, has a pharmacy doctorate degree and helps run a home infusion therapy company. Antone Sr. coached basketball at Huguenot when Exum was in middle school, so he saw the strict academic standards to which his dad held his players and understood any grade below B meant no sports.

“We had to make those statements, but we really didn’t have to stand over him, because he was always able to do both (school and sports),” Barbara said. “He did not have to put a lot of time into getting good grades.”

Exum, now a finance major who said he has a 3.0 grade-point average, used to stay up late studying flash cards of the multiplication tables with his dad.

“I’m going to be faster than everybody else at this,” he told Antone Sr. Within a few years, after he began playing flag football, he vowed to his dad, “You won’t have to pay for my college. I’m going to get a scholarship.”

He hated not being best at anything. After a youth soccer game, he overheard a parent talking about another player as the league’s best athlete. Exum tugged his dad’s shirt and said, “I’m the best athlete in this league.” Exum played the other kid’s team in the next game and scored four goals. Afterward, he told his dad, “Where was that kid that was supposed to be so good? I told you I was the best athlete in this league.”

Then there was the time Exum body-checked his mom into the garage during a backyard basketball game because she was about to make the game-winning layup. Or the time he cracked his dad’s tooth while trying to beat him at hoops. Or the family vacations when he ran through airports so his parents and younger sister wouldn’t beat him to the gate.

Or even the day more recently when he sliced and hooked his way through a par-3 golf course with his dad, then swore he could clear the water on the final hole and talked Antone Sr. into a $10 bet that he would do it. He hit the green.

“He hustled me out of 10 bucks,” Antone Sr. said.

But football was Exum’s primary focus. As a little kid, he sat at the kitchen table with Antone Sr. and used a salt shaker to demonstrate which holes he was supposed to run through on certain plays. In high school, he skipped junior prom and spent the night doing footwork drills in the yard.

Last summer, Chris Parker, Exum’s best friend since fourth grade and now a defensive back at Richmond, was hanging out at Exum’s house. Parker teased him about what Tech’s first opponent, Boise State, was going to do. A few minutes later, when nobody was looking, Exum snuck out of the house. He returned a little while later, soaked in sweat. Parker’s comments motivated him into an 11 p.m. run around the neighborhood.

“In his mind, nobody is working at that time of night,” Parker said.

For as long as Parker can remember, a piece of notebook paper has hung on Exum’s wall, at his parents’ home and now at his apartment in Blacksburg. Exum lived by the words he wrote on it, right up through this summer, when he started doing hot yoga to improve his hip flexibility and breathing, knowing this was his year to put last year’s errors behind him.

The paper reads: “What can I do to get better today?”

• Read Darryl Slater’s blog at vteffect.com

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