March 11, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – For a seventh time this offseason, Doc Holliday is looking for a new assistant coach. In a Shewey Building office next to that of the Marshall football boss, Chuck Heater is looking for a few more good men.
Heater, one of the many new faces on Holliday’s staff, was hired two months ago to fix an MU defense that contributed mightily to a 5-7 season in 2012. The veteran coordinator with a big-time background likes a lot of what he has … he just says there’s not quite enough there – yet.
“You’re always trying to find the right fit for guys and we have a much better idea now of just who these guys are,” said Heater, who has watched oodles of tape on the Herd returnees and seen them in offseason work. “I can tell you we’ve got issues at linebacker and safety.
“We’ve got to get guys in there who can play. Our defensive front, a lot of guys have played a lot of football there. Our corners, if we can keep people healthy, we’ve got guys who have played.”
In addition to his coordinator duties, Heater will be coaching the Herd secondary with graduate assistant and former linebacker Tyson Gale. Heater is anxious for the start of spring drills in 15 days to get a better gauge on the entire defensive side of the ball.
“There’s really been an effort to see what we have, and if we can improve what we have,” Heater said. “I think there’s enough talent, relative … I don’t know the conference (USA) but you talk to people and it seems like we match up well.
“If you have to start at a point, you’d like to start with defensive line. You’d like to start with corners, and those are good places for us to start. Linebacker and safety, we’re working on it. Most people would like to start with a defensive line you thought was good enough, and corners you thought were good enough. That’s unless you’ve got corners who can’t cover, then you get exposed pretty quickly. You also get exposed if your safeties can’t play.
“We’re good enough up front. I like what we have but we’re still missing a dominant guy. We don’t have anyone like our guy of a couple of years ago (2011 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Vinny Curry).
“And overall (on defense), I like their attitude. Kids are hungry by nature, and they weren’t very happy the way they finished, were embarrassed by it. I do like their attitude, they take to take coaching, but that said, there are problems on defense.
“They show up to lift, and there are very positive things about the attitude. If you have that, it helps. We can build a defensive unit; you can work with that.”
What Heater wants at safety and linebacker is more depth. And while the defense returns eight starters, Heater tempers that by saying those eight starters are back from “a defense that didn’t get the job done. So you ask them to get better, a lot better.”
At safety, the Herd lost starters Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha, the team’s top tacklers who played one MU season as graduate transfers from Boston College. To try and fill a void, Heater is moving rising sophomore D.J. Hunter back to his former strong safety spot from linebacker, where he starred in 2012.
“We lost both and we were thin there to begin with, so there are a lot of moving pieces to that one,” Heater said. “We’ve got to get better fast, got to find the right fix at linebacker, too. We have to address those two positions to get where we want to get. We’re going to see if Hunter can function at safety. He fits the skill set very well, and I’m hoping that’s an answer because he’s a good football player.
“The other position (free safety), we’ve got the junior college signee) in Taj Letman, and back are (Shawn) Samuels, and a guy who won’t be playing this spring (due to injury and/or surgery), like (Andre) Scott. We’ve also got Corie Wilson and Derek Mitchell at strong, and A.J. Leggett is moving to strong from corner, but he’s out this spring, too.
“We’re hoping for Scott and Leggett at some point. They’ll have limited reps in the spring, but they will do some stuff.
“There are a lot of pieces, some new guys, some not been on a field a lot, so fortunately there are bodies. There’s a freshman coming in (Tiquan Lang from Lowndes High in Valdosta, Ga.), and he appears to have some good skills.
“So, we’ll see. There are just so many unknowns, and unfortunately you’re not going to be able to get a full book on it. We’ll be playing until December, so there is a lot of time for guys to develop. That’s what you hope. I see it as a long plan, getting guys better. If a guy can play, eventually, he’ll get there.”
Heater said that entering spring practice, the Herd has returnees Jermaine Holmes and Cortez Carter at middle linebacker, with Billy Mitchell and Kent Turene at the weakside, and Fork Union newcomer Stefan Houston and rising junior Deon Meadows at strongside.
“Jermaine has played a lot, Billy and Cortez have played, but they weren’t a very good defense last year, so it’s ‘OK, we’ve got to play better,’” Heater said. “Turene sat out, but he was an inside backer in high school and I like him, and we get a chance to get a full evaluation of him this spring. Guy like that needs to get on the playing field. He can help us. Houston is more of an outside guy. He played safety in high school.”
Evan McKelvey and Raheem Waiters are also ticketed as outside backers, but they’ll also be in red (no contact) jerseys as they rehab from surgery.
“In the fall, I think both those guys can really help us.”
At corner, Heater said with rising seniors Monterius Lovett, Derrick Thomas and Darryl Roberts and rising junior Keith Baxter “we’ve got four guys who can cover.” Corey Tindal sat out in 2012 and the Herd coordinator said, “I like the way he’s worked in winter … So, we’ve got five guys there, three of whom have played, with good skill sets.”
Up front, Heater said the Herd is in need of depth. James Rouse won’t have contact this spring, and “hopefully he gets back, because he could be huge for us,” Heater said.
“We’ve got (junior college transfer Arnold) Blackmon coming in, a pass rusher, but he’s not here yet (until May). There are just a lot of moving parts.
“We probably could move a linebacker up front. Turene could get big enough, but then we don’t have enough backers. We’ve got a couple of guys (Josh Brown, Gary Thompson) who will be activated by the fall, and that will help a lot.”
Heater mentioned junior college transfer Neville Hewitt, a linebacker from Georgia Military College who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as the kind of recruit who could help the Herd quickly.
“Overall on defense, we’ve got six or seven figuring in the mix somehow that you won’t have for the spring, so you can’t want to overstate what their role will be,” Heater said. “The linebacker Hewitt is impressive (on tape), at a position where we need help. Blackmon can help us right away, too, I think, but you really aren’t sure.
“I’m hoping and wishing we’ll get some help, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is guys who have no book, how do you rate him? Can they play and win? It’s very rare for a freshman coming out of high school to do that.
“You’re asking a lot if you expect that, and sometimes you get it, but you shouldn’t expect it right away. A JUCO or an older guy, you expect it more. Getting them to the point where they can help, well, that’s the art of coaching.
“And that’s why we’re here.”