Aug 26, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - Essray Taliaferro has had a Gomer Pyle-type of preseason in Marshall Football.
Sur-prize! Sur-prize! Sur-prize!
The redshirt senior running back from Washington, D.C., was penciled in by most as No. 4 at his position, behind three talented redshirt sophomores from Florida. Well, Taliaferro, after running with the "ones" most of camp, is the expected starter Saturday night in the season opener against Miami of Ohio.
Then, on Sunday night, Herd Coach Doc Holliday named Taliaferro one of the four captains for the opener, saying, "This guy might surprise you (as a captain pick). He's surprised me. He's on a mission and he's busted his rear end every day."
The third surprise? Taliaferro has often been somewhat reluctant to speak with the media. Well, it turns out he can - as they used to say when we wrote down quotes rather than taping them - this guy can "fill a notebook."
"Surprised?" Taliaferro repeated Monday when asked about Holliday's choice of him as a game captain. "Hey, I was as surprised as anybody else was. The only one probably not surprised was Doc, because he made the decision.
"This year opposed to other years, we have seniors, senior leadership about 20 or more (it's 19), and we got the Catos and Shulers, who are junior leaders also. So, for him to choose me out of all those seniors and all those and young guys who will play a lot of football, it goes to my heart.
"It's an honor and I'm going to try and make Doc real proud this year."
The 5-foot-9, 183-pounder might have that opportunity.
"He's earned it," Herd offensive coordinator Bill Legg said of Taliaferro's depth-chart status. "When you earn it, you deserve the opportunity. He's been given that, and he's grabbed it and taken advantage of it.
"It's all about production.'
When new running backs coach Thomas Brown was hired by the Herd, he wiped the slate clean. Sophomores Kevin Grooms - injured through much of camp - Steward Butler, Remi Watson and "Tally" were all at the same starting line.
However, Taliaferro emerged after a big-time summer conditioning effort.
He ranked first among the Herd in strength index (bench, squat, clean total, divided by body weight). He had the team's best broad jump (10 feet, 5Â½ inches) and his vertical leap of 38-0 was second to strong safety D.J. Hunter's 40-6.
"This whole situation is odd," Taliaferro said Monday during the Herd's game-week interview session, "because we've got Remi, Stew, Grooms Ã¢â'¬Â¦ a lot of talented guys. For me to be the guy, it's just shows how much hard work and doing the right thing pays off."
With others on the shelf, Taliaferro was called on by Holliday last Nov. 23 at East Carolina. The winner goes to a bowl. The loser has a long offseason. He was the starter, and he rushed 27 times for 130 yards and caught three passes for 50 yards.
But what has gripped Taliaferro since then was his second-and-1 fumble after a 5-yard gain for a first down - in double overtime - with the score 59-59. ECU scored on its second-OT possession for a 65-59 triumph.
Taliaferro, who starred at Briar Woods high in northern Virginia and walked on at Marshall, has been driven by that one play and his opportunity with a new position coach.
"Last year, that East Carolina game I had that fumble, it's obviously not how I wanted to go out, the end of the season, fumbling and not getting us to bowl game," he said. "Every time I had to go to mat drills or summer workouts, or winter workouts, doing a bench press, (you say), 'I can't do it, I can't do it,' or I might skip this rep Ã¢â'¬Â¦
"That fumble was always in the back of my head, that moment, I can't let that happen. So, maybe, if I went extra harder, the outcome would be better."
The senior didn't hesitate when asked what Brown - a former Georgia star running back in his first year in Holliday's staff - had done for him.
"He taught me to work, taught me accountability .. and it's about more than just talent," Taliaferro said. " See, a lot of running backs get the reputation -- and to a degree it's true - that it's an instinctual position, you don't have to make too many reads, don't have to feel things. But, honestly, your talents can only take you so far.
"When you study and know the ins and outs of the game, if he does this, you do that, so instead of getting 10 yards, you get 50 yards. Instead of a first down, you get a touchdown.
"So, he's taught me that -- just don't depend on your talent. Learn the game, understand the game, understand what (the defense) is doing, and maybe instead of a first down, it's a touchdown."
Taliaferro has played in 36 Marshall games, only missing one in his redshirt freshman season of 2011. He had 441 career yards on 104 carries, and has caught 10 passes for 81 yards. He has three rushing touchdowns. He's returned three kickoffs and one punt and has 12 special teams tackles.
In other words, he's done what he's been asked to do. And he'll probably be the up-back on kick returns this season, no matter what else happens.
Last season, playing behind the so-called "Baby Backs," he experienced what many of his teammates have experienced this preseason. The Herd is much deeper at many most positions, and there's greater competition as Holliday's club heads toward the opener Saturday at Edwards Stadium.
"Competition makes anybody better," Taliaferro said. "When there's no competition, you have the ability just to lay low. See, if I'm the only guy there that's playing well, I don't have to go hard in practice. Every day when I go out there, I want to have someone push me and I push them.
"Now, we have talent at every position, and you want to stand out among them. You want to show them, 'I'm just as good as you,' and that's going to push us individually as players and as a team to go to that next level, win a bowl game, a conference championship, and make the Herd fans proud."
Meanwhile, Taliaferro is thrilled and honored be a captain as chosen by Holliday and his staff. So, will he be a different senior this week?
"Oh, yeah, I feel like it's our responsibility," the veteran Herd running back said. "I'm not going to change who I am. I'm more of a leader by example, more than saying it. I'm sure going to be more vocal than I usually amÃ¢â'¬Â¦just try to describe to guys, this is a big deal coming up, this is an old rivalry that some of us don't know a whole lot about, but it's important."
I asked Taliaferro what the focus of his week-long message might be. Cornerback Monterius Lovett, for example, spoke of "trust" and "accountability" in his first words at captain on Sunday night.
"For me, it's about expectations," Taliaferro said. "When talent is even, you can be a team that expects to win, a team that if you do win it's a surprise. I think we should always have the mentality that we expect to win.
"We're not second-tier to anybody, whether it's the Virginia Techs, Miami of Ohios, or Ohios or our conference (USA) teams, anybody we play. Set the expectations high and don't settle for what you think. Don't be surprised if we do win. 'Oh, it's a surprise!' No, we expect to win. Just set you expectations high."
Meanwhile, one play on one day will continue to fuel Taliaferro - the fumble that he insists cost the Herd a Military Bowl berth.
Of course, without his 130 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards and late 1-yard touchdown run in regulation for a 52-45 Herd lead, Holliday's team likely wouldn't have been in position to even get to overtime.
"You might be right," Taliaferro said, "but me being the competitor I am, I expect myself to do things Ã¢â'¬Â¦ I expect to excel, run the ball, catch the ball. What I don't expect to do is fumble, let my team down when those guys are depending on me.
"I know the good always outweighs the bad, but in this situation, the bad outweighed the good.
"I still haven't gotten over it," he said. "If I let myself down, that's one thing. But for me to let my team down and to keep us from possibly going to a bowl, that burns deep inside of me and I think I have to redeem myself."
And to start his last season, Capt. Taliaferro is ready to run.