Aug. 3, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Much of the 2014 preseason attention devoted to Marshall football focuses on Heisman Trophy-hopeful quarterback Rakeem Cato and the prolific Thundering Herd offense.
It's the other side of the ball where most of the Herd's five-win improvement in 2013 was rooted, however Ã¢â'¬Â¦ and MU Coach Doc Holliday's mantra is that defense wins championships.
This season, Marshall has the kind of stoppers to do just that in Conference USA, where the Herd is picked as an overwhelming favorite.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said he wants a four-point improvement. Translated, the veteran assistant coach wants Marshall's 22.9-point scoring defense figure of 2013 to get to at least 18-point-something.
"Last season, 18 or better got you into the top 10," Heater said. "If we can get to 18, we're good."
Led by tackle James Rouse -- the 2013 Herd team MVP back for a sixth year of eligibility - Marshall returns eight starters and 115 of 154 game starts from a 10-4 finish and Military Bowl victory.
Eleven of the top 12 and 17 of the top 21 tacklers are back - "That's great," Heater said -- led by linebackers Neville Hewitt, Jermaine Holmes and Evan McKelvey.
"We need to be a dominant defense," Heater said, with the Herd's 2014 preseason camp opening Monday. "We need to show that no matter what happens on the other side of the ball, we can win the game. Do we have the talent to do that? Yes. Will we? We'll see."
Heater said 2014 spring practice brought another step in the evolution of the Herd defense, which with a 20.2-point improvement made the biggest scoring defense jump in major college football since Central Michigan improved by 20.5 points from 1997 to '98.
"I liked the competitiveness of our guys, I like the way they'd go about practice," Heater said. "I feel they like to play football and that's a big deal. Not everybody likes to play football, even the guys who play it, so I'm encouraged by a lot of guys.
"Some guys still need to develop, in toughness and attitude, but I felt like there was progress in that regard in the spring. Hopefully, that will result in more depth, and some guys got opportunities, plenty of reps, like (defensive end) Joe Massaquoi at end with Ra'Shawde (Myers) hurt."
Heater said the defense goes into August camp with no new position moves. Former safety D.J. Hunter returned to outside linebacker (strong side) before spring ball, and during the spring, Miami (Fla.) transfer Ricardo Williams moved from end to tackle.
With backup end Josh Brown having left the Marshall program, Massaquoi will step into the No. 2 spot at end behind Myers.
Heater said the talent in on hand. He sees it as attitude that could make that four-point difference he's seeking once the Herd opens the season Aug. 30 at Miami (Ohio).
"I like the way they go about things," Heater said. "Like the Thursday practice at the end of spring ball, two days before the spring game. We were to have a no-padded practice, but we had to make some changes in the schedule, and it turned out to be probably because the toughest practice we had all spring.
"It was full-scale, and they practiced great. That was great insight to me, that if they had the mindset to go out on day when a lot of guys might have had the attitude, hey, the spring game is Saturday, it's time to relax; we're almost finished. Instead, I felt like they went out and really went about their business.
"It's still a battle every day, but I felt there were signs of maturity that we need to have if our defense is what we want it to be."
Heater says he has "two starters" at middle linebacker in Hewitt and Holmes, and adds that the Herd "has three safeties who are starters in my mind" in A.J. Leggett (free), Tiquan Lang (strong) and Taj Letman (either spot).
Rouse and Myers will be joined up front by end Gary Thompson - he's put on 25 pounds since last season to more than 240 - and nose Jarquez Samuel. Williams and Steve Dillon will play plenty inside, with Arnold Blackmon and Massaquoi backing up at end.
Heater talks about "good depth" with six linebackers who played plenty (Holmes, Hewitt, McKelvey, Hunter, Stefan Houston and Raheem Waiters).
"I feel good about our starting players and feel better about depth in front (line and linebackers), but I worry about the depth at corner and worry about the depth at safety," Heater said. "Those are two positions where I like the starters, our top three, but we need one more at each spot.
"We're still trying to find a fourth safety, find a fourth corner. We've got some possibilities, but until we get back out there, we don't know."
With Leggett, Letman and Lang at safety, Heater could be pegging rangy true freshman Kendall Gant - a four-star recruit and one-time Georgia recruiting commit - as the fourth safety the Herd needs.
The top three corners are Darryl Roberts, Corey Tindal and Keith Baxter. The fourth is likely to come from among sophomore Michael Johnson, Virginia Tech transfer Donaldven Manning and rookie D'Andre "Chocolate" Wilson, who sat out last season.
When the Herd goes to its nickel package - which it isn't as likely to do as much as last season with Hunter able to provide pass coverage at linebacker - the nickel will be Tindal (he was co-C-USA Freshman of the Year at that spot last season), with Roberts and Baxter at the corners.
Heater said the 2014 goal in scoring defense is the 17.8 put up last season by C-USA's top scoring defense, North Texas. That number ranked No. 8 nationally, while the Herd improved from No. 123 (43.1 ppg allowed) to a tie for no. 31 (22.9 allowed).
"The next step for us is to become a dominant defense," Heater said. "You're not really going to win - the way we think we're capable of winning - until the defense can play every Saturday in a dominant fashion, regardless of what happens, regardless of turnovers or whether there are kicking game errors.
"All of that shouldn't matter. You've got to find a way to go out there and keep the opposing team out of the end zone. And at times we did a good job with that, but I think the next step for us is to become a dominant defense.
"And if we do that, we're going to win, win a lot of games, win some because of the defense. That's my challenge to them, that we take a step forward."
Marshall's improved tackling - only 115 missed tackles in 14 games - was crucial. Holliday and Heater set a team goal of single-digit missed tackles per game. The Herd, while averaging 8.2 missed tackles, posted single digits in 11 of 14 games.
"Two other key things are important -- getting off the field on third down, and rush defense," Heater said. "Our goal in rush defense is 3.0 yards per play in a game. We need 35 percent efficiency on third down. If you can stop 'em six of nine times on third down or get a turnover, that's good enough to win, or should be."
Marshall achieved its season goal on third-down defense, at 33.6 percent, slightly better than the 35 percent Heater wants. The Herd held six foes under 33 percent and three others below 39 percent. The only teams with 50 percent or better conversion rate against Marshall were Ohio, Middle Tennessee and Rice - three of MU's four losses.
The Herd achieved the 3.0-per-rush number in only five of 14 games last season, but the season average of 3.71 yards ranked 27th among 125 FBS teams. Only four teams had season averages of 3.0 or better (Louisville, Utah State and Rose Bowl foes Michigan State and Stanford).
"The 3.0 per rush or less is a good number," Heater said. "Tackling, single digits, but getting off the field is the ultimate goal. We use those numbers as a starting point."