Hokies' young DBs embrace Tide challenge

In Miss Lucretia Culbreth's seventh-grade science class, students were given different parts of cows to dissect. As most of the kids cowered at the sight of bloody animal hearts and livers, 13-year-old Brandon Facyson gravitated toward the organs, asking if he could touch them.

Despite being told no, Facyson's fascination with bodies and structures eventually manifested over the years into an interest in medicine. Now an aspiring heart surgeon in his freshman year at Virginia Tech, Facyson has juggled classes as a biological sciences major with duties on the gridiron, where he has matured quickly into a cornerback the Hokies are expecting to rely on this fall.

"Being in that major is a lot of work," Facyson said. "It's a lot of breaking down stuff. It's a lot of just taking my time, going out there. It helps as a football player as well, just breaking down information one step at a time and just putting it all together. And once I get it, I can just run it faster, I can understand it more and I can play faster."

The nation will discover just how fast that is come Saturday in Atlanta, where the Hokies get the first crack at Alabama in the Crimson Tide's quest for a three-peat. And Facyson has hardly been alone in shouldering a heavy workload in the lead-up to the season opener against the defending champs.

Virginia Tech has not started a true freshman defensive back in an opener since Antonio Banks took the field at free safety 20 years ago. But with all-ACC second-teamer Antone Exum still rehabbing from a January knee injury, and with his replacement, sophomore Donaldven Manning, deciding to transfer one week into fall camp, two true-freshmen corners are assured of meaningful minutes in their college debuts. And their first test will come against a preseason Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback AJ McCarron, who will be throwing to wideouts such as preseason All-American Amari Cooper.

"I'm looking at it as it's going to be a good welcome to college football," said Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech's other freshman corner.

Fuller's initiation has been a little more gradual. The fourth of four brothers to play for the Hokies -- and the younger brother of senior starting corner Kyle Fuller -- the 5-foot-11, 193-pounder arrived in Blacksburg, Va., this summer as the highest-rated recruit of a Virginia Tech class that ranked 20th nationally this past cycle, its highest in four years, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation.

Bud Foster has told reporters that the youngest Fuller is among the most ready newcomers he has ever had in his 19 years as Virginia Tech's defensive coordinator, a sentiment echoed by his position coach.

"His football IQ for a freshman is off the charts, from the standpoint that we're starting him off at nickel, saying, 'OK, let a true freshman come in just in nickel packages and let him absorb that and be good at that,'" secondary coach Torrian Gray said. "And then you find out, 'OK, we're going to play you at nickel but still play you a little bit at corner,' and there really were very few mental errors by Kendall, or if he messed up something, you'd correct him once and he was able to grasp it and move on. There's all these different nuances to each technique or coverage.

"So we put him at nickel, he's playing that. We put him at boundary corner, get some third-team reps just to keep you sharp at corner, then you get an injury at the field corner and you put him there. And there's different nuances even though corner is corner to an extent. And I'm like, 'Wow.' So that's been the most impressive thing. Just his football IQ and being able to tell him once, just how quickly he can absorb and pick up things, because I have other freshmen you've got to tell a thousand times. And it's just amazing how quickly he can absorb stuff besides being a talented kid and competitive kid."

It helps, too, having the example of older brother Kyle Fuller, another all-ACC second-teamer who has been starting for the Hokies since his freshman year.

Gray equated Kendall Fuller's family ties to the program with that of a student reading the CliffsNotes version of a book before it has been assigned in class.

"I actually wish I could have had this type of experience that they had," Kyle Fuller, who started seven games as a freshman, said of his brother and Facyson. "Both young guys coming in, that's definitely good for them. They have a good and bright future, and I'm looking forward to seeing them in the coming years."

Facyson is listed at second behind Kendall Fuller on a depth chart that figures to be in flux throughout the season, especially with Exum expected back some time in the next month or so. Facyson's first official taste of a college gridiron this weekend will come in the Georgia Dome, less than an hour away from his hometown of Newnan, Ga.

He recently returned to Madras Middle School to catch up with Miss Culbreth, who had sparked his intrigue into anatomies with those cow dissections six years ago. She was washed over in tears upon the reconnection.

Gray could not help but laugh when asked about the initiative of Facyson, praising the freshman's maturity level and saying that he "always looks you dead in the eye." Gray, a former Hokies safety, is entering his eighth season as the orchestrator of "D.B.U." -- Virginia Tech has had a defensive back drafted in all but two years since 1997 -- and he admitted that this group, collectively speaking, is as green as any he has worked with.

Still, he has not relented on his demand of perfection from a unit that will not be given any free passes when it opens against a modern-day dynasty.

"I'm going to coach them hard, I'm going to correct them hard, I'm going to congratulate them and be very enthusiastic when they get it right and do it right," Gray said. "I'm going to be very demonstrative to get my point across if I have to [if] they're not getting it corrected at the speed that it needs to get corrected at.

"So that's just my approach to it. I can't allow these guys to be true freshmen because they're going to be playing extensively against Alabama. They've got to match my sense of urgency, so I coach that way. And for the most part guys understand why and respond and some guys don't understand why, but it's just that way right now."