BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech's defense seemed to make a dramatic turnaround in a week.
The Hokies (3-1) went from getting carved up on defense by Pittsburgh to shutting out Bowling Green, and the biggest personnel difference may have been the return of cornerback Kyle Fuller to the lineup.
The junior and defensive leader was injured against the Panthers early in the first quarter when he suffered a right shoulder contusion. When Fuller went to the sideline, things quickly went downhill for the Hokies in a 35-17 loss.
Virginia Tech will find out how far it has come what should be a stiffer test against Cincinnati (2-0) on Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. The Bearcats beat that same Pittsburgh team 34-10.
Still, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and the Hokies like their chances a lot more with No. 17 in the secondary.
"He's a confidence-builder. When he's there, you feel confident that things will get done right," Beamer said. "He's a playmaker. The game makes sense to him. When he's not there, I think the other guys miss him and they understand what a terrific player he is.
"I think, besides his play, he brings confidence to our defense."
Fuller also is the youngest of three Fuller brothers to play for Beamer. Oldest brother Vincent played several seasons in the NFL after leaving Tech, and Corey is a redshirt senior wide receiver.
Kyle Fuller isn't a statistical marvel, though he shares the Hokies' lead with two interceptions and two passes broken up. Teams also tend to throw away from him, limiting his play-making opportunities.
But there clearly is something different for the Hokies with him on the field.
"Just his presence on the field definitely makes a big difference on" defense, senior linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "He's one of those guys who leads more with his play rather than his words. ... You can't always just talk about it; you've got to be about it. And Kyle is definitely about it."
After the Hokies blanked Bowling Green 37-0, with Fuller drawing an appreciative roar from the crowd when he broke up a deep pass in one-on-one coverage, he said he spent the previous week in practice working with the players who struggled while he was out would be better prepared the next time they get an opportunity.
"I try to make sure they're paying attention, every day in the film room, ever rep at practice," he said. "You never know when you're going to have to step up and that's something I try to do as a leader, making sure everybody's on the same page, knowing what they're doing and getting ready to play."
The eager students included sophomore starting safety Kyshoen Jarrett.
"He's one of the leaders of the defense and one of the older guys, but for future reference, I feel like a lot more guys are going to step up," Jarrett said of a lesson learned. "Even though we're young, including myself, I could definitely step up and take charge and be more vocal for everyone else."
The results showed against the Falcons, and this week will provide a bigger test for the Hokies.
The Bearcats, in their third season under coach Butch Jones, beat the Pittsburgh team that thrashed Virginia Tech. Nine days later, the Panthers jumped to a 21-0 lead on the Hokies and coasted.
The shutout against the Falcons at least got the Hokies moving in the right direction on defense again.
"It was a big leap," cornerback Antone Exum said. "We still did a couple little things wrong, technical things, but from the Pittsburgh game, we got a lot better just playing fundamentally and doing our assignments, everybody doing their job.
Last year, this defense, we got better as the year went on. I feel game by game we just continue to progress and that's something we can do this year, and I feel like by the end of the season or maybe sooner than later, we'll be that defense that we think we can be."
Especially if No. 17 stays healthy.
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