March 14, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Plenty has changed in Marshall’s football program this offseason, but one aspect of the Thundering Herd that won’t be altered much really doesn’t need dramatic change.
That would be the offense, which -- led by coordinator Bill Legg and quarterback Rakeem Cato in his Conference USA Player of the Year season – led the nation in passing and ranked in the top 10 in FBS in scoring and yards per game.
The alterations are significant on the coaching staff, where the veteran Legg’s door nameplate is the only one that hasn’t changed among offensive assistants to Coach Doc Holliday. Legg is heading toward his 26th spring practice as a college assistant, and knows his unit can build on an impressive and productive performance in 2012.
Satisfied? Not hardly. So, as the Herd heads toward the opening of spring drills on March 26, I asked Legg – from behind his office desk on Tuesday -- to tackle some of the issues on his side of the ball.
He reminded me that it’s still a team game. In discussing the prolific numbers put up by the Herd offense, the long ago Poca Dot star said there’s room for improvement.
“We’re on a mission, because regardless of what happened statistically on offense last year, the only one stat that really matters are Ws and Ls, and we weren’t good enough.”
He also said much, much more.
JB: What about personnel changes?
BL: There’s nothing significant at this time. We have a lot of kids who played a lot back from last year, right now the focus is on trying to get better as individuals, whether it’s through strength, speed, quickness.
Guys are doing a really good job spending time around the building, watching video to get a better sense of what assignments are on different plays, how to react to different defense. Right now, we’re kind of limited to how much we can do with them. We’re getting a little bit of time with them to spend on football, but most of time is eaten up with strength and conditioning and agilities and that kind of stuff.
(Legg’s list of players who will be limited in some fashion in spring drills included receivers Davonte Allen and Devon Smith, fullback Devon Johnson, tight end Gator Hoskins and offensive linemen Jordan Jeffries, Cameron Dees and Grady Kerr. He also said defensive lineman Blake Brooks is moving to offensive guard.)
JB: Is there anything you want to change about the offense?
BL: I think every offseason you take the proverbial engine and you strip it down to bare bones and you’re very critical about how you evaluate it. What are we doing well … How can we continue to do that and what do we need to improve on and how do we do that?
The biggest thing right now is the consistency, and when we’re not playing tempo, not going fast, when we need to slow down, being able to execute our offense as efficiently as what we did at times when we were going fast … because there’s going to become a point in time where defenses will slowly catch up to the whole thing with the tempo, and there’s going to come a point in time where you’re going to need to eat clock.
We’ve got to become a more consistent offense, No. 1, at the things we’re doing. And you’re always tweaking. There will be wrinkles that are different stuff, but the big thing is consistency and when we need to slow down, having the ability to be as productive when we’re running at a slower tempo.
JB: Will the loss of several offensive coaches slow things down this spring?
BL: I don’t think staff changes affect things in the immediacy. I think staff changes, if you’re not careful, can affect you long-term in recruiting, because guys have been in a certain area for extended period of time and developed relationships and so on and so on.
We’ve hired outstanding football coaches and these guys are bringing a lot of things from their experiences to the table, and the kids, I believe, are excited about some of these things these guys are bringing in terms of teaching them and helping them to become better players. And so from that standpoint, it’s not as big an issue in my mind.
Knowing one another takes a little bit, from the cohesiveness standpoint. But that’s the least of my concerns. I don’t think that’s a big issue. One thing we’ve tried to do, especially in the last month, is put those guys in positions where they have time and opportunity to begin to open (recruiting) doors for themselves, representing Marshall, where someone else may have been in there previously. That’s where the recruiting part can suffer the most, if you let it, because you have different guys, or new guys, going into areas.
JB: You lose three senior receivers (Aaron Dobson, Antavious Wilson, Andre Snipes-Booker). Replacing them?
BL: The positive thing on last year is we played a lot of guys. You pull the statistics and see a whole lot of guys (19) caught balls. And there’s a whole lot of guys who caught multiple balls, not just two or three, but double digits, 20-some (11 players had at least 11 receptions). We have a lot of guys who got a lot of snaps last year.
So, those guys are going to be expected to step up, whether it’s individually on en masse to replace what we’re losing. And there are some young guys who will be given the opportunity to show that they’ve improved, to show they have taken advantage of an offseason, to show they’ve taken advantage of being in the system for another semester and not having to think as much, being able to play faster and so forth, being able to make plays.
One thing about what we do (offensive tempo) is that it requires a lot of bodies, so losing one guy is not as critical when you’re playing eight or nine. When you’re only playing two or three and you lose one, it makes a big difference. It’s not as drastic with eight or nine. Obviously, losing three seniors who did a great job, they’ll be sorely missed. At same time, seven or eight other receivers got a lot of snaps last season. Whether it’s by individual or by committee, we’ll continue to push forward, continue to get better individually and collectively to replace anything we’ve lost.
JB: After the season-ending loss at East Carolina, Coach Holliday talked about the need to get backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel on the field more after Blake gave the team a different dimension (with his running ability in the read option) when Cato went out injured. Is that going to happen?
BL: The competition is always open. It’s open in the fall camp, but not to the degree it’s open in the spring. Guys need to re-establish themselves when they get opportunities. Are there points in time during a game and situation that Blake can bring some things to the table that might help us be better? Yeah, there’s a high possibility some of those things could come into play, especially with our limited numbers of what we call ‘big skill’ guys, which are tight ends, fullback-type bodies.
We don’t have a lot of those bodies on offense so there may be some things that we can do to create issues for a defense to offset the fact that we don’t have those bigger bodies to line up in the heavier formations and knock you off the football with consistency. So, you’re always tinkering and toying with some things, and we’ve got some things in our offense that we kind of haven’t maybe used as much as other things we’ve done. So, we’ll play with some different situational stuff this spring to see what’s going to best fit us for the future, and Blake can be a part of that in those circumstances.
JB: How about some spots that might leap forward this spring?
BL: I base a lot of it on how things have gone this offseason. Our kids have had a really good winter. They walk around the hallways here this week compared to last week, and their bodies are looking different. You got to give to the strength staff and the kids – the strength staff for laying the foundation for the program and the kids are buying in, working their butts off to get things done.
So, it’s going to be interesting to see whether some of the young offensive linemen can create more competition. Can we create more depth there? That will be an intriguing thing. We’ve got some young receivers that have had good offseasons in developing their bodies, which has allowed them to become quicker, faster, stronger. Will they be able to transition that onto the field?
Our running backs were young last year, so this offseason has been very important to them in getting stronger, getting bigger. And as fast as sometimes we think they are, you can still be quicker, be faster, be stronger, more explosive through improved strength and flexibility.
We did some good things last year, but we’ve got things we’ve got to improve on, a lot of things. Whether it’s us as individuals or collectively, the group, we’re by no means sitting still and hoping things go well. We’re working our butt off right now trying to find ways to get better. We’re on a mission, because regardless of what happened statistically on offense last year, the only one stat that really matters are Ws and Ls, and we weren’t good enough.
JB: The offensive line made big strides last season. Discuss who is where up front.
BL: Chris Jasperse is the starting center until someone beats him out, just as Cato is the starting quarterback until somebody beats him out. People are going to be given every opportunity to go in and win the job and the guys coming back are going to have to go out and continue to perform, continue to progress, continue improving in order to retain their position. It’s about fundamentals, it’s about competition and it’s about ‘testing ground’ stuff in spring. That’s what spring all about.
We’ve got Garrett Scott and Gage Niemeyer at tackle (Jeffries is a red-jersey man in spring). Josh Lovell and Alex Schooler at guard. We have young guys fighting for a job, other guys fighting to keep their jobs. Guys like Clint Van Horn and Eric Ansley and Sebastian Johansson, Josh Murriel, Tyler Combs came in in January. Grady Kerr is out unfortunately, and I was really looking forward to seeing him this spring. Cameron Dees is out, too. We moved Blake Brooks over from defense, and he’s shown some things that could be really beneficial to us as an offense.
We’ll shuffle them around and put them in the position that’s best for them and us, when all’s said and done, and see how they compete. Positions are usually fluid situations there. First and foremost, it’s who are the five best guys? Where do we need to put them to get all five guys on the field at the same time? You’re not going to play your seventh best lineman just because he happens to be a left guard. If you’ve got two other guys better than him, hey, get somebody else at left guard and get the best five on the field. Garrett could play practically any of the five spots on the offensive line. Lovell could play right or left, and he’s better off inside than he would be on the perimeter, but he’s played tackle before. Jasperse could play any of the inside three, but could line up at tackle if needed in an emergency situation. But he is better as a center or guard.
Who’s the best five, and where do we need to put A, B, C, D, E to get the best five on the field?
Now, who’s the next best five, and how do we need to shuffle those bodies to get the next best five in behind them to create the maximum competition. Those guys aren’t locked in anywhere. Obviously, Jasperse has made a lot of snaps at center and Garrett Scott has taken a lot of snaps at tackle and you’d like to be to be able to build around them and not move them, but at the end of the day, we’re going to put the best five on the field. If Garrett had to go to center and Chris to right tackle to make that happen, so be it. Sometimes you have to shuffle the deck to get the right hand.
JB: Cato became a star last season. What do you want to see from him this spring?
BL: There are a lot of things that every kid on that football team can do to improve themselves. Rakeem took a dramatic step forward last season and got better each week, which was probably the most important thing. My biggest thing with Rakeem is that he just continues to get better. He improved his fundamentals, improved his decision-making, yet there were still times where his decision-making and fundamentals could be better.
The guy driving the bus has to be on-point with decisions and has to be accurate when we’re throwing the ball, so that he’s throwing guys into the open windows and he’s throwing it to the right guy first off, or handing it to the right guy. But he’s also putting the ball in position where our guys can get it, and only our guys can get it.
I thought he did a marvelous job from Year 1 to Year 2, going from a true freshman to a sophomore. I’ve said over and over again over the years that the two biggest advancements in kids’ careers are between their junior and senior years in high school and their freshman and sophomore years in college, and I think you saw Rakeem really do that last year. I don’t know if he can make that big of a jump this year, but he can still improve.
So, it’s going to be little things, details, as long as he continues to work hard with a smile on his face, then he’s going to continue to improve and make it hard on everybody else to take the job away, and he’s going to make the offense better. All three things are good for him as an individual, and all three are good for us as an offense and as a football team.