Dec. 21, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
BOCA RATON, Fla. – The five offensive linemen who will open for Marshall in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl have combined for 121 career starts.
If that sounds like a bunch, consider the five “big ‘uns” from Northern Illinois that will go against the Herd defense. NIU’s starting line has combined for 166 starts.
If you study history, however, it’s legitimate to wonder how Marshall’s fivesome of Chris Jasperse, Clint Van Horn, Trevor Mendelson, Sebastian “Swede” Johansson and Michael Selby have 21 starts as a group in Coach Doc Holliday’s program, much less 121.
However, Jasperse and Van Horn are All-Conference USA first-team selections on a 12-1 C-USA title team that ranks No. 2 in FBS total offense. And the Herd is tied for No. 2 nationally in fewest tackles for loss allowed (an average of 3.42 per game, behind only Duke at 3.33).
Jasperse, who will start an MU major-college record 53rd time in the bowl – every game of his career – was a walk-on. Ditto for Mendelson, the left tackle who played only special teams until Week 2 this season. Johansson, the left guard from Sweden, had one year of American high school football under his belt, Raceland, Ky.
Right tackle Van Horn was a grayshirt from Beckley, W.Va., who started his college days without a grant-in-aid. Selby, a well-schooled guard from rural Georgia, only had offers from Marshall and Middle Tennessee until Georgia Tech offered 48 hours before the February 2013 Signing Day.
Add to that backups like guard Blake Brooks – a transfer from Division II Fairmont State and versatile Tom Collins. Both are former walk-ons from Mountain State high schools.
Not exactly a bunch to roil a Rivals.com four- or even three-star list, right?
“Sometimes you just fall into things,” Holliday says of the Herd offensive line, “and we kind of did.”
So, how has this group become so successful?
“I think it’s that chip on their shoulder, and that chip on their shoulder -- even though those kids ended up earning scholarships -- that never left their mind, and they work like that,” said Marshall offensive line coach Alex Mirabal, who at 5 feet 5, 145 pounds looks anything but the part. “The comments that they’ve made throughout the last two years we’ve been together, you can still see it stings them.
“They didn’t get those scholarships coming out of high school -- that they weren’t given to them, that they had to earn them. And they take a lot of pride in going against a higher-rated -- quote-unquote -- star coming out of high school, and beating ‘em up, blocking ‘em up. It’s something that drives them.
“It’s who we are as a group, me included. It provides you with an energy, that spark that you want to prove to those people who told you that you couldn’t do something, prove them wrong. That’s Chris Jasperse, that’s Van Horn, that Trevor Mendelson. It really does drive them.”
Mirabal, from nearby Miami, will have plenty of support at the first Boca Bowl. His family members have purchased upwards of 30 tickets. He’ll also have plenty of support between the sidelines.
“It’s a mindset,” Mirabal said Saturday. “It’s like Doc always says, ‘It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.’ It’s that work ethic and once they get here, nobody cares where they came from or how they got here. A football field is an equal playing field for everybody. The video doesn’t lie and we’re going to play the guys who are the toughest and earn it. And that only helps make it a special group.”
Mendelson is a prime example of that, a guy who seized an opportunity no one saw coming. Of his group, Mirabal said the 6-8, 304-pound redshirt senior “has without a doubt, come the farthest” with his 11 starts, all this season.
“At the start of the season, Mendelson is third string at left tackle,” Mirabal said of the Dublin, Ohio, native who made the Conference USA all-Academic Team for his 4.0 in a master’s program in finance. “Swede was starting there and we lost him (high ankle sprain) in the Miami (Ohio) game. Trevor’s not the guy who goes in; it’s (true freshman) AJ Addison.
“Then we play Rhode Island, and Swede goes down again, and then AJ goes down. And then we’re down to Trevor. Quite honestly, if those two guys hadn’t gotten hurt, Trevor would still be a backup. So, it wasn’t like I provided him the opportunity. Injuries did. And he took advantage of it.
“No game tape on him. He played 46 snaps against Rhode Island and I come in the next day and watch (tape) and it was ‘Wow!’ And then somebody says, well, maybe it’s just against (FCS member) Rhode Island.
“So the next week we play Ohio and he does it again. And it’s been good ever since. He’s just a tremendous story, probably the guy fans, media even our coaching staff would have expected the least from. And he gave us the most, a great season.”
Mendelson’s play allowed Mirabal to move Johansson back to left guard, where he started last season, too.
Holliday has called Northern Illinois (11-2) the best team the Herd will face in 2014, and Mirabal said the Huskies’ defensive front that his charges will be blocking are the best foursome “as a group” Marshall will play this season.
All of the NIU front four and first-year starters, and Mirabal said the ends – All-Mid-American Conference senior Jason Meehan and junior Perez Ford – will offer a challenge for the Herd.
“They’re good because they keep their feet moving; it’s constant motion,” Mirabal said of the NIU unit that also includes 300-pound tackles Corey Thomas and William Lee. “Their defensive line coach (Brett Diersen) has done a tremendous job with those kids.
“When an offensive lineman gets his hands on them, you can still always see their feet moving. They don’t stop. So, you might stop their first move, but they’re going to come back with a counter move. Those moving feet, that’s something I see from all of them.
“If it’s one or two guys, then maybe it’s just one or two guys who have a knack for that. But it’s all eight of those guys that play, so it’s obvious their defensive line coach has done a great job of emphasizing that – which means we have to work to out-finish them, keep our own feet moving for a longer period of time.
“I think (No.) 49, Meehan is a phenomenal player. With Ford, (No.) 44, that’s the best D-end combination we’ll play this season. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”
As a veteran offensive line coach – Mirabal coached FIU linemen for three of his six seasons at his alma mater before moving to Holliday’s staff – the Miami native really appreciates the experience on the NIU offensive front, too.
“Toughness. It’s toughness,” Mirabal said when asked what does 166 combined starts say about the Huskies’ line. “I guarantee after playing 13 games this season, those kids are beat up, and banged up and playing with injuries. To me, we define toughness in our group, guys that show up every day, whether you’re hurt or not.
“I haven’t watched a lot of crossover tape of their offense, but I’ve seen Northern Illinois play a few times on TV this season. And what they’ve got is what we try to get from our offensive line. It’s a testament to them and their offensive line coach (Joe Tripodi) and the kind of kids they have, and hopefully they watch our offensive line and think the same.”
Mirabal said the Herd grasps the significance of the first Boca Bowl, which has matched conference champions and high-profile Group of 5 conference programs.
“Northern Illinois has become the next Boise State,” Mirabal said. “Boise had the mantle in the early 2000s, the BCS buster, but in the last five years or so, with (coaches) Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren and now Rod Carey, you’ve seen them become that program, especially the last couple of years.
“They’ve won 11 games five years in a row. Boise was the first BCS buster, and even though the BCS is gone now, Northern Illinois was the next team like that.
“I think our program at Marshall is headed in that direction. Hopefully, we can be next.”