As reporters asked questions to cornerback Antone Exum after Monday’s practice, an agitated defensive coordinator Bud Foster sat a few feet away, simmering with an anger after openly scoffing at a few of the queries.
Once it was his turn, he didn’t hold back.
“I thought the kid right you’re talking to right there played his n— off,” Foster said of Exum. “You can quote me on that s— too. Played his a– off. Fought his a– off.”
It was the most-animated the admittedly fiery Foster has been this season, an intensity clearly drawn from the frustrations of a 27-24 loss to Cincinnati in which a handful of plays decided the game.
“I thought with the exception of about five plays, we played a hell of a football game,” he said, in one of the more newspaper-friendly quotes of the night. “That’s going to get you beat at this level.”
For the most part, Foster thought his group played well Saturday. The ones they failed on execution were noticeable, however.
Donaldven Manning, in for a cramping Kyle Fuller, got beat on consecutive plays, the second going for a 29-yard touchdown by Kenbrell Thompkins in the third quarter.
“I mean, he’s been practicing all week,” Foster said. “He’s been practicing No. 2. You’re a play away from being the guy. It’s unfortunate on his part. He’s got to take another step. We’re just kind of in a bind right there from a depth standpoint.”
Safety Michael Cole had a bust on the 76-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield to running back Ralph David Abernathy IV in the fourth quarter.
On the last play of the game, one that saw Fuller let his receiver get behind him for the game-winning score, Foster called for a deep half coverage.
“We couldn’t be in a better coverage,” he said. “That guy should have been fair catching the ball.”
Foster bristled when asked if he was surprised that the team didn’t execute in that situation.
“Is that … a loaded question?” he said. “I mean, what the [expletive]? You don’t think we’re going to plan on executing right there. We’ve been doing it all day.”
Exum was the target of many fans’ scorn afterward — in part because of four penalties that resulted in 47 yards and three first downs — but Foster backed his safety-turned-corner 100 percent.
“That’s the short side of the field,” Foster said. “I don’t care. You could have put DeAngelo Hall over there, they’d have done the same thing.”
Asked if he thought the defense has underperformed this year, Foster shot back.
“I wouldn’t say it. You guys were the ones who said we were going to be a great defense,” Foster said. “I said we had a chance to be a good defense. That’s what I said at the beginning of the year. We had a chance.”
Foster thinks the problems can be corrected.
“It’s a lack of execution from our standpoint,” he said. “And you can ask every one of those kids, and they’ll tell you the truth.”
OK, that’s the main course. Here are a few after-dinner mints …
- Secondary coach Torrian Gray didn’t think Foster’s demeanor was any different than it normally is. “Bud’s Bud,” he said. “Bud’s not any different. We lost a game. That’s on us there at the end. He’s p—– off. We’re all not happy right now. We’re all a little grouchy and what-not. But we’ve got to get it right. We’ll get it right.”
- Foster thought linebackers Jack Tyler and Bruce Taylor had “monster games,” adding, “They’re both playing at a high level, playing extremely well. We need everybody doing that right now on both sides of the ball. We need everybody playing that way.”
- The two played so well that Foster said it was going to be hard for Tariq Edwards to fit in right now if he’s not 100 percent. “I think the other guys are playing at such a high level, if you can’t be at full speed, especially with who we’re getting ready to play and how we’re going to have to play, I don’t think we’re helping ourselves,” Foster said of Edwards.
- North Carolina’s tempo is going to be something difficult to handle. The Tar Heels push the pace offensively more than anyone the Hokies have faced, hoping to catch defenses between substitutions or not ready for the next play. “The film doesn’t do it justice,” Foster said. “The first time we played East Carolina a couple years ago when they came from the Texas Tech stuff, video doesn’t do it justice, how quickly [it goes]. Because it cuts it off and it starts it over again. It’s not going continuous.”
- How will Tech handle it? “Sometimes you don’t have time to substitute,” Gray said. “You’ve just got to be able to play with the people that are on the field, whether it’s nickel, whether it’s base defense. You see on film and the other team is still running guys off the field, so it’s something where they’re obviously fast or they can speed it up to a tempo and you’ve got to be able to keep up.”
- Back to the pass defense: Gray thought Exum did “a great job.” “We did it by game plan and put him on an island to stop the run. And they didn’t complete any of the deep balls on him,” he said. “The problem was when we missed tackles, and then they got the big plays off a 10-yard pass or something like that, that’s something we’ve got to be better at.”
- Gray’s problem continues to be that the backups aren’t ready. He called having to put one of those freshmen in at a crucial moment, like he had to with Manning in the third quarter, a “nightmare scenario. … I’ve said, our freshman are not ready just yet. Hopefully down the road, but right now, we’re just not ready. And that was a scenario. Unfortunately it flipped the momentum right there.” What did Torrian say to Manning afterward? “This is why you have to do all the little things I’m talking about in practice,” he said. “This is why you don’t work head up. This is why all the things that I’m talking about. This is why.”
- Virginia Tech will probably continue to use quite a bit of nickel over the next few weeks, with North Carolina, Duke, Clemson and Miami on the schedule. All of them use spread formations to a degree. Right now, Michael Cole has been working at nickelback, simply because of the lack of corners. Detrick Bonner has worked some at corner too, just in case something happens to Fuller or Exum. “We’ve got to be able to cover our bases, and maybe Desmond Frye, if one of the corners goes down, you move Bonner and see if Desmond can play,” Gray said. “It’s a freshman you’re going to regardless, so you might as well at least solidify yourself the best you can.”
- There seems like an unusual gulf between the first- and second-team defensive backs, but Gray said it was the same situation at safety last year behind Exum and Eddie Whitley. “We’ve just been fortunate not to get injured,” he said.
- It doesn’t sound like Tech will change too much about leaving corners on an island. That’s how it plays defense. “If those guys can handle it, we’ll keep them on the island,” Gray said. “If they can’t, we’ve got to help them out. We’ve got to roll coverage and do certain things. But that’s part of being that boundary corner. That’s part of playing defensive back here. That’s what we do at times.”
- Getting back to Exum, he too thought he played OK, except for the penalties. He’s not backing away from being put on an island, though, and figured that’d be the case this year with his offseason switch. “I like that challenge, that they felt like they could [come at me],” he said. “I felt like they couldn’t but on some of those plays, they got the best of me. But I’m a fighter, so I’m going to come back the next play and line up and play again.”
- Exum whiffed on a tackle when Abernathy caught his long touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. It was Cole’s busted coverage, but Exum had a chance at the 50 to take him down. His problem? He broke down. “We’re taught in our open field tackles not to really break down and kind of run through it,” he said. “Because if you break down you give them a chance to dictate to you and he’s definitely a good player that can make you miss, like he proved. But what I should have done there is use the sideline as an extra defender. Put him in a corner, so to speak, and then took away some of the space he had to work with. But I didn’t, kind of took a wrong angle and he got inside of me and hit the house.”
- Exum, despite the criticism he’s taken after the game, remains confident in his progression at cornerback. “I feel very comfortable out there,” he said. “I wasn’t discouraged or anything from the performance. I know the receiver had [7 catches for 134 yards]. I know he had three catches on me and then I had some of the penalties. I felt like I fought and they, I don’t know, they just got the best of us that day.”