Caleb Farley wasn’t afraid to blaze his own path to the NFL.
In the midst of a pandemic, Farley became the first high-profile collegiate football player to opt out of the 2020 season.
It’s a fitting distinction for a defensive back whose collegiate career has been anything but conventional. In the days since, he’s signed with well-known agent Drew Rosenhaus, moved down to Pensacola, Florida, and started training at EXOS, a premiere training facility for athletes.
After a long day of workouts on Tuesday, Farley summed up his “surreal” week for The Roanoke Times.
“My life is just completely different,” Farley said.
Farley has done a media tour of sorts in recent days to discuss his reasoning for opting out — he wrote a first-person column for Pro Football Talk and made appearances on the Today Show and CNN.
It was the column that caused a stir for the comments he made about Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 safety protocols.
Farley responded with a heavy sigh on Tuesday when asked about the piece in which he described “deep concerns” over Tech’s testing frequency, teammates participating in workouts after leaving campus and working out at the team’s indoor practice facility in large groups.
The ensuing firestorm initially went unnoticed by Farley, who spent the day training. The session ended and among the missed calls he had waiting for him was one from Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente. Farley wasn’t looking to create controversy and let Fuente know as much when the two connected.
“It has nothing to do with Virginia Tech,” Farley said. “It was never me taking a dig at Tech’s medical staff or anything like that. You won’t hear me speaking on it that way.”
Farley intended for the column to reflect his own reservations about playing through a pandemic, which was the “context” Fuente referenced in the statement he put on Monday after speaking to Farley.
“It means the world to me to have a supportive head coach,” Farley said. “I committed to play football for Virginia Tech and I committed to play for him. For him to hold his commitment to me, and jump behind me and support me, it’s mutual respect.”
“We’re running the play that was called as best practices and according to Mark … we even go above and beyond what the requirements are,” Babcock said. “While we’re all anxious and watching it, I don’t know what we could do better.”
Babcock even went a step further.
“I also am a parent of a Division I student-athlete who I love more than anything in the world, and I would put him in our protocol any day of the week and sleep very soundly,” Babcock said.
The end of Farley’s career at Tech unfolded on July 29 less than 24 hours after he participated in a walk-through at the team’s indoor practice facility. A couple hours after meeting with Fuente, he sent a video announcing his decision to ESPN.
Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons have since joined Farley on the list of players opting out — a list that’s sure to grow in the weeks ahead — but Farley will always be remembered for making the leap first.
Farley wasn’t one of the players who stayed on campus when Tech announced it was moving classes online in March.
He didn’t return to Blacksburg until mandatory workouts started in July and never got comfortable with the health risks of playing this fall. Farley’s mother Robin passed away after a long battle with cancer in January 2018, and Farley didn’t want to put any of his family members at risk.
The uncertainty in college football also factored into his decision.
The ACC’s new scheduling model (10 conference games plus one nonconference game) did little to inspire confidence that the 2020 season would happen considering the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.
“It’s been hard, we really wanted to have another season at Virginia Tech,” Caleb’s father, Robert Farley, said. “We felt Caleb would really have a chance to separate himself from the competition and maybe even be a top-five pick, but we really had doubts about this season the closer we got. The conferences took the initiative, but things just keep popping up.”
It isn’t lost on Farley on how far he’s come.
Farley’s first few practices at defensive back as an early enrollee back in 2017 weren’t pretty. He flashed his playmaking abilities going one-on-one against receivers by relying on the athleticism that helped him rewrite the record books as a quarterback at Maiden High School (N.C.).
Everything else was a little more challenging.
“The outside world doesn’t know how raw I was,” Farley said.
Farley rattled off the “young, dumb mistakes” he made — from pulling on jerseys to busting up coverages — to explain why he was so relieved to move to wide receiver midway through the spring camp even though he didn’t have any experience playing that position either.
“I wasn’t polished in my routes and the game of playing receiver, but I was so confident on the other side of the ball, I knew if they threw me the ball and I caught it, somebody was in trouble,” Farley said. “I just never had any worries on offense. It was just second nature to me.”
That was evident during the 2017 spring game when fans got their first glimpse of Farley in a Hokies’ uniform. Farley had a game-high 78 all-purpose yards, including a pair of catches on for 61 yards, after only four practices at the position.
Tech coaches on both sides of the ball came out of the game raving about Farley’s skill set.
“I was doing cartwheels and somersaults inside when he came on our side of the ball, and I was watching him grow and develop,” then-defensive coordinator Bud Foster said at the time. “And I’m sure the offensive guys are saying the same thing right now.”
The offense won a tug of war for Farley’s services, but his career as a receiver was short-lived. He tore his ACL during noncontact drills on the first day of fall camp that August.
“I was trying to do too much, exaggerating my movements, running too hard and slamming on the brakes…” Farley said. “As soon as I planted, I felt it jacked up and I started screaming. I threw the ball. It was like something out of a movie. I knew as soon as I cut, I wasn’t playing that fall.”
Fuente had a “heart-to-heart” with Farley the first time the coaching staff wanted him to change positions.
The Hokies recruited Farley as an athlete with promises of using him as a versatile weapon on offense, but the coaching staff changed their minds less than a month into the team’s winter conditioning program.
There wasn’t anything nearly as formal a year later once he finished rehabbing his ACL injury, and Farley found himself back in the position meeting group with defensive backs coach Brian Mitchell.
“I knew as soon as I blew out my knee I was going back to corner,” Farley said. “I was going to play offense that season because we were short at receiver, but had Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson at corner. I knew once those guys left and I blew my knee out, I was going back to defense. It was just kind of known.”
Farley transitioned to a full-time defensive back, and much of the heavy-lifting came with preparing himself mentally for a position that “intimidated” him. It was hard to tell that transition was a work in progress when the team opened the 2018 season with a 24-3 win at Florida State.
He made a pair of diving interceptions and had a sack in his memorable debut.
Those good vibes didn’t last with Tech’s secondary giving up 495 yards in a historic loss at Old Dominion just three weeks later. The season turned into a roller-coaster ride with Tech pulling out comeback wins over North Carolina and Virginia and suffering through an embarrassing four-game losing streak.
He finished the season with 36 tackles (29 solo) and seven pass breakups.
“I was scared,” Farley said. “I was timid. I didn’t want plays to come to my side. I didn’t want to mess up and hurt the team. I didn’t have any confidence in myself on the defensive side of the ball. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Logging onto social media only made things worse, with fans constantly criticizing his play (only in more colorful terms) and calling for the coaching staff to move him back to offense.
“I’ve always been the man, always been the best player on my team,” Farley said. “It was humbling.”
One summer afternoon when Caleb Farley was a kid, he spent an entire afternoon in the backyard teaching himself how to do a backflip.
Farley worked at it for hours doing backflip after backflip until he perfected the maneuver.
The memory flashed in his older brother Josh’s mind when he watched Caleb make a one-handed interception in the end zone against Miami while boxing out the receiver with his body. It was a play Josh didn’t think Caleb would have made the previous year.
“If something is a challenge, he’s going to face up to it,” Josh Farley said of his brother. “He’s one of the most competitive people I know. When I saw that play, I knew he was a different player.”
Caleb Farley maintained that level of focus in the months leading up to the 2019 season.
“I was angry, I was p—– off at the previous season,” Farley said. “I was ready to put it all together. I wasn’t holding back anymore. I could match my physical abilities to my mental abilities.”
Farley credits the 700-plus snaps he played as a redshirt freshman and the coaching he received from Brian Mitchell for helping him play at an elite level. His improved practice habits also played a major role.
He was named first-team All-ACC with four interceptions and a league-leading 16 passes defended. According to Pro Football Focus, Farley only allowed 18 catches on 50 targets and opposing quarterbacks only had a passer rating of 26.8 when throwing in his direction (ranked fifth among corners in FBS).
The success came as he managed painful inflammation in his back from an injury he suffered lifting weights early in the year. The injury wasn’t publicly revealed until Farley had to sit out the regular-season finale against Virginia.
“That killed me,” Farley said of sitting out.
Virginia snapped Tech’s 15-game winning streak in the series with opposing quarterback Bryce Perkins throwing for 246 of his 311 passing yards in the second half.
“I kind of knew I would need surgery to get it fixed,” Farley said. “The trainers did a hell of a job to keep me in the season. They kept my sciatica symptoms down. They kept me healthy and able to move.”
Farley will be staying in Florida for the foreseeable future to train for next year’s NFL combine.
While he’s one step closer to making his NFL dreams a reality, he isn’t sure how scouts and front office personnel will react to his decision. Players from all over the country have reached out to him and shown their support, but Farley is focused on making believers out of the decision-makers who will be evaluating his draft stock in the coming months.
Los Angeles Chargers defensive back Casey Hayward, who is a mentor of Farley’s, doesn’t think that will be a problem. Hayward, who lost his mother to cancer in 2016, reached out to Farley after hearing they shared a similar story during the broadcast of the 2018 Florida State game.
A friendship grew from their brief initial interaction.
“If he goes to the combine and runs a 4.2, nobody is going to remember he didn’t play in the fall,” Hayward said.
Farley spent time training with Hayward in May. Those training sessions have the former second-round pick out of Vanderbilt convinced that Farley will be a top prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft.
“He is blazing fast,” Hayward said with a laugh. “We lined up [for a race] and he smoked me. I’m good at the 20-yard dash and I really don’t lose to people, but he’s fast fast. It was only 20 yards and it wasn’t even close.”
Hayward spoke with Farley the day before he announced his decision and could sense he was at peace with his decision.
“For college players the risk is bigger, we get paid pretty well do it,” Hayward said. “ I think he did what he needed to do.”
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