Nov. 13, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish … especially when you start.
If that seems confusing, well, Trevor Mendelson would understand.
The Marshall redshirt senior – translate that "graduate student" – has gone from walk-on, to survivor to starter at left tackle in the Thundering Herd program, and now he’s an important cog on an unbeaten and nationally ranked team that sports one of the country’s top offenses.
"I always dreamed about it and worked hard," Mendelson said about getting a big opportunity with a team that’s 9-0 (5-0 Conference USA) entering Saturday’s crucial Edwards Stadium date against Rice (6-3, 4-1). "I thought if I kept doing what the coaches told me to do, something would pay off for me, and it has this season."
Mendelson has grown in many ways since he joined Coach Doc Holliday’s program in 2010, the same season the veteran assistant made his head coaching debut with the Herd. The lineman from Dublin, Ohio, was 6 feet 5, 270 pounds when he reported, and was only 6-1 as a high school freshman.
Now, Mendelson is 6-8, 304, and has started the last seven games, moving into the lineup when Sebastian Johansson suffered a high ankle sprain. Johansson has since returned, but is starting alongside Mendelson at left guard.
"It’s something I’d been waiting to hear for a long time," Mendelson said of the day when he was told by offensive line coach Alex Mirabal that he would get his first career start on Sept. 13 against Ohio at Edwards Stadium. "And I remember calling my dad afterwards and letting him know.
"More than anything, I was really proud of myself for just sticking it out, finally getting the opportunity I wanted the whole time."
Mendelson didn’t play his first two seasons in the program -- although he did get the nickname "T-Dawg" in 2011 from then-senior tackle Ryan Tillman. In 2012, Mendelson saw time in six games on field goal and extra point units. Last season, he had only 29 offensive line snaps as the "fourth tackle" in the first 13 games.
Then, starting right tackle Clint Van Horn was injured early in the Herd’s Military Bowl victory over Maryland, and Mendelson went in against the Terps and got the most important 30 snaps of his career – two weeks after he gained his MU undergraduate degree in finance.
After so little playing time, did Mendelson consider not returning, or did the bowl experience change that mindset?
"I’d have definitely come back," said Mendelson, who has played 596 snaps this season, with 19 knockdowns. "Being a senior here is something special and I came in with Chris (Jasperse, center) and we really have built something special here and I’d never have walked out on that.
"After the bowl, I just felt like I had my best football yet to play, and I thank my dad a lot too, because coming out of high school, he always said he thought I’d be a late bloomer and he really pushed me to keep playing, and the best years were still to come. Thank God, he was right."
While Jasperse and Mendelson came to Marshall as walk-ons in the same 2010 class, their experiences for the Herd couldn’t be different. The veteran canter is scheduled to start his 49th consecutive game – every game of his career – on Saturday. His 3,643 career snaps lead all FBS linemen.
Yet, Jasperse understands and appreciates Mendelson’s drive.
"All the guys can get discouraged if they don’t get the chance to play, and Trevor’s stuck with it and kept developing," Jasperse said. ‘And he’s gotten taller, bigger, just really smart. He really understands the game and that really helps him out, just like it helps me out. We might not be the most athletic guys out there, but we’re smart and we know what to do and how to do it."
Mendelson went on scholarship in January 2013, coinciding with the arrival of Mirabal, hired from FIU as the Herd’s offensive line coach. Mirabal has drawn nothing but raves not just from his linemen, but from Holliday and Herd followers, too.
"He’s unquestionably the best offensive line coach in America," Mendelson said of Mirabal. "I know that, and everybody else in that (Marshall offensive line) room knows it. He brings out the best in everybody. We’re all different, and he knows how to get the best from all of us.
"He really made me into the player I am today. He stuck with me and he always has the right thing to stay, has the right techniques. I give him a ton of credit for the player I am.
"He gave me confidence. Previous coaches, when you’re a walk-on, they don’t pay a lot of mind to you. He came in here and I knew I had a new shot with a new coach, hopefully finding some playing time, and he definitely brought that out in me and helped me realize I could do that."
Mendelson also cited encouragement from his former roommate and NFL Draft pick Garrett Scott, who finished his Herd career last season, and MU strength and conditioning director Scott Sinclair.
"When Coach Sinclair got in here (January 2013), he, helped me with all of my game," the Herd tackle said. "When I came in here, wasn’t that strong in the weight room. He’s done heck of a job, developing me.
"And honestly, the last spring (2013). I really kind of realized I can do this. It clicked in with me. Garrett Scott, my roommate, helped motivate me, told me I could always do it, but it was something I had to figure out on my own."
Mendelson said he never doubted he could be a regular. Asked why, and he cited his parents – Mark, a businessman with a clothing charity, and Diane, a Methodist pastor.
"My dad, when I was growing up he coached me in football and basketball. He’s always been tough on me, pushed me to work hard. My mom always has been my motivator from the faith side, always kept my head up, and my dad has always coached me athletically. I had it from both sides, and I had the best of both worlds."
Mendelson is working on a master’s degree – he’s one of seven Herd players who already have bachelor’s degrees, with another 10 expected when the semester finishes next month.
"Right now, I’m trying to focus on football as much as possible," he said when asked about future plans. "I would like to get into coaching, I think, the college level.
"I feel like my best attribute as a player is cerebral and I understand the game really well. For the last couple of years I’ve really wanted to go into coaching."
Maybe there’s something in that Herd offensive line room. Jasperse, another big ‘un seeking his master’s -- wants to coach, too.
"I always thought he knew how to do it and what to do, but physically, Trevor wasn’t quite there and he knew it and he decided to develop it," Jasperse said. "I think last year, what helped us both was when Coach Sinclair came in. He helped us get stronger and more mature, and Trevor just clicked from there. He always had good feet, knew what to do. All he needed was a little physicality."
Now, he’s a starter on a veteran line with two fifth-year seniors (Jasperse, Mendelson), two fourth-year juniors (Van Horn, Johansson) and a true sophomore (guard Michael Selby).
Is his experience a lesson for other walk-ons at Marshall and beyond?
"Absolutely," Mendelson said with a smile. "If you stick with something, show perseverance, hard work, good things will come to you. People who work hard, good things will come to them, compared to maybe someone who just quits.
"You’ve always got a shot at something, unless you quit."