March 17, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – As Bill Legg points toward his 27th season as college football coach, he said some of what Marshall wants to accomplish in 2014 spring practice is no different than it was back at his first full-time job at West Virginia Tech in 1988.
“It’s kind of a typical spring,” said Legg, in his fifth year as Coach Doc Holliday’s offensive coordinator. “It’s about personnel, fundamentals, and how can we run this play better, or how can we run this play different to make it better? Or, is there a play we can add to our system to become better?”
Marshall opens 14 days of spring practice next Tuesday (March 25), leading to the 15th day – an April 26 Green and White Game, which will be coached by Herd quarterback legends Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington.
There are some specific points of emphasis this spring for the Herd, which is coming off a 10-4 season in 2013 and a Military Bowl triumph over Maryland:
*At the two outside receiver spots, can Marshall find a combination of pass-catchers who provide production as well as consistency?
*Who takes the No. 2 quarterback spot behind four-year starter Rakeem Cato, now that backup Blake Frohnapfel has transferred to UMass?
*At running back, who among three juniors replaces 1,140-yard senior Essray Taliaferro? Steward Butler? Kevin Grooms? Remi Watson? Will new running backs coach Chris Barclay utilize them differently?
*Is there anyone at tight end/H-back – or a combination there – that can replace the red-zone receiving production by the “Mr. Touchdown” of the last two seasons, Gator Hoskins
First things first, on personnel: Holliday said Grooms, suspended indefinitely late last season, has been working out in conditioning with the Herd for the past couple of weeks. However …
“Grooms isn’t back as an official member of the team yet,” Holliday said. “He still needs to earn back the trust of his teammates and the coaches before he’s a part of the team again. We’ll decide when that’s going to be.”
Legg, asked about a pre-spring depth chart, smiled and said, “Isn’t that a waste of ink? … I don’t pay any attention to it. They (the players) will, but it doesn’t matter. What matters to me is what it is 10 days before we open at Miami of Ohio (Aug. 30). There’s a lot of time until then.”
And, the veteran coordinator said, plenty of competition.
“In the college game there’s always change in personnel,” Legg said. “A couple of starting offensive linemen graduated, a couple receivers graduated. Our most consistent running back graduated. Our tight end graduated. Backup guys graduated. Guys graduate, they move on. We don’t get to keep ‘em until we don’t want ‘em anymore.
“So, personnel is something you have to deal with every year. Whether it’s the backup quarterback or the starting left tackle, it’s always something, so we’re looking to fill some spots that have been vacated, and do our best to become even deeper than we were the year before. We do that by developing players through the offseason program with (strength and conditioning) Coach (Scott) Sinclair, and through spring football with them getting opportunity to take reps in live situations that they may not have had previously.
“The second thing is we want to push hard to continue to improve fundamentally, because at end of the day, fundamentals are going to win the game – how well we block, throw, run, catch. You can never stop working on those deals.
“Third, we’re trying to constantly push the envelope to see how much they can absorb, and then there are always things that need tweaking to keep you one step ahead of the curve, so to speak.”
As for who starts where in line as spring practice begins, Legg used Cato, a senior who is among the nation’s top three or four returnees in several career passing categories, as an example of how not to get comfortable as a starter.
“We have a bunch of guys out there running around and we’re trying to figure out who’s one, who’s two, who’s three,” Legg said. “Cato been starter for three years, but he’s got to go out and continue to compete at a level he competed at to attain that status.
“Now, if he does that, nobody should catch him, between his God-given ability, matched with his experience. Nobody should catch him, and I’d anticipate that being the case because one thing I can say about that young man is he’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around, which is one of the reasons he’s very special. His ability and hard work have allowed him to get where he is.”
Legg said the Herd’s search for a No. 2 to Cato will start “by age appropriate,” meaning redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holcombe is followed by redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson and true freshman Cole Garvin to start practice.
“All four are going to take snaps (in practice),” Legg said. “Obviously, by the end of Day 1, the order might change. Shoot, by halfway through Day 1, the order might change. I can’t tell you that. It’s up to them. It’s why you have competition.”
To depict how the Herd enters spring drills at the pass-catching spots, receivers coach Mike Furrey, when asked for a two- or three-deep at the three positions, grinned and said, “Tommy Shuler, senior.”
“Tommy Shuler, slot.”
“Tommy Shuler,” Furrey said. “We’ve got a lot of guys, but right now, it’s Tommy Shuler.”
Legg did a bit of analysis on what figures to be the Herd’s horse race of the spring, after an inconsistent season from the outside spots during the 10-win success of the Herd’s biggest year since 2002.
“You lost a guy (Aaron Dobson) who was a second-round (2013) draft pick and played a lot of snaps on a team that went to semifinals in the NFL playoffs,” Legg said, “so you’re not going to walk a guy out there who’s going to be that same guy. I don’t care where you are.
“We had some youth and inexperience, both. Even some of the guys who were older didn’t have a ton of experience and they’ve got to work through some things, no question. The outside receiver position is a position we need to get more production from. I need to a) as a coach help them become more productive, and b) they need to help themselves become more productive.
“I need to put them in situations where they can be more productive, but then they need to take advantage of the opportunities when they’re given to them. The combination of that is something where we need to – again -- find a way fundamentally to get better.”
Don’t misinterpret Legg’s remark. He sees plenty of talent for those two outside spots, adding that Deandre Reaves will back up the record-setting Shuler (216 catches over two seasons) in the slot, with another name or two to find their way to that position.
“We’ve got some veteran receivers coming back,” the Herd offensive coordinator said. “We’ve got a lot of really talented players out there, so it’s gotten to this point: Who’s the guy who’s going to show up consistently every day, the guy we can rely on? I know I have an idea who I think it’s going to be, but at the end of the day, who is it going to be, really?
“I would think that Craig Wilkins is as excited as all get-out to have a great year this year. I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t. My expectations for him are extremely high, but he’s got to still do it.
“Chris Alston had a great offseason. He’s as far along and as good as he’s been from the knee (injury and surgery) he had a year and a half ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked himself in there somewhere.
“We’ve got some young guys who are really talented. Justin Hunt is really talented. Angelo Jean-Louis is really talented. How big of a dent can they make? Because it’s not just about talent. It’s not about potential; it’s about production.
“So, I know we’ll start off Day 1, Craig will be on one side, Davonte (Allen) will be on the other side. Tommy will be inside. What we’re going to do when it gets down to it is play multiple guys who will help us win a game. That’s who’s going to get a chance to play.”
In Legg’s world, spring depth charts have no legs.
The 2014 pre-spring practice two- and three-deep for Marshall football, as provided by Thundering Herd coaches:
WR (z) – Craig Wilkins, Angelo Jean-Louis, Demetrius Evans
WR (x) – Davonte Allen, Justin Hunt, Chris Alston Jr.
WR (slot) – Tommy Shuler, Deandre Reaves
LT – Sebastian Johansson, AJ Addison, Chris Huhn
LG – Blake Brooks, Tom Collins, Will Mendoza
C – Chris Jasperse, Cam Dees, Cody Collins
RG – Michael Selby, Trevor Mendelson, x-Tyler Combs
RT – Clint Van Horn, Sandley Jean-Felix, Eric Ansley
TE/H-back – Eric Frohnapfel, Devon Johnson, Joe Woodrum/DeonTay McManus
QB – Rakeem Cato, Gunnar Holcombe, Kevin Anderson
RB – Steward Butler, Remi Watson
DE – Ra’Shawde Myers, Ricardo Williams, Joe Massaquoi
NT – Jarquez Samuel, Josh Brown, Malcolm Strong
DT – James Rouse, Steve Dillon, Marcus Gilchrist
DE (Fox) – Gary Thompson, Arnold Blackmon, Armonze Daniel
OLB (Sam) – D.J. Hunter, Raheem Waiters
MLB (Mike) -- Jermaine Holmes, x-Neville Hewitt, Cortez Carter, x-Kent Turene
ILB (Will) – Evan McKelvey, Stefan Houston
CB – Corey Tindal, Keith Baxter, Donaldven Manning
SS – Tiquan Lang, Taj Letman
FS – A.J. Leggett, Taj Letman, Corie Wilson/Andre Scott
CB – Darryl Roberts, Michael Johnson
Nickel – Corey Tindal, Michael Johnson
PK – Justin Haig, Nick Smith
KO – Amoretto Curraj, Kaare Vedvik
P – Tyler Williams, Nick Smith
LS – Matt Cincotta
H – Tyler Williams
KR – Deandre Reaves, Tiquan Lang
PR – Deandre Reaves, Tommy Shuler
x -- Hewitt, Combs, Turene are expected to miss spring practice while recovering from surgery