BOGACZYK: On Defense, Heater Looks for `D' -- Development
The Word on the Herd-March 20, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Chuck Heater is pointed toward his 40th season as a college football coach. So, spring practice isn't anything new to the veteran Marshall defensive coordinator.
Approaching his third Herd spring, Heater has taken one of the nation's most porous defenses and made it into a top 10 unit. The statistics show that.
Now, his bunch that helped Marshall to a No. 22/23 national ranking, a 13-1 record, Conference USA title and Boca Raton Bowl win needs to do what Heater always wants.
"You want to get better," Heater said. "Coaching is trying to move guys along, developing guys who want to develop but don't know how to do it by themselves. Some guys don't want to work that hard, don't want to deal with issues, so you're constantly trying to manage that, battle that, get it out.
"That's what coaching is."
Heater's defense lost six starters from 2014, including three-fourths of the front, two linebackers and cornerback Darryl Roberts, who impressed NFL scouts at the Herd's recent Pro Day. Asked to look back as well as look ahead to spring drills, Heater considered the past, present and future.
"Statistics do tell a story - not the whole story - but they give you some story, tell you if you're on the right track," Heater said. "I mean, we were the best defense in our league (Conference USA), which is a good place to start. And for the sake of having confirmation of what you have done, you like to be statistically good.
"But what we'd like is to be is a top 10 -- at least top 20 team -- in all of the important statistics. And we were. You don't want to overdo it on stats, but it does give you an indication of what's going on."
So, it's more about player development this spring for Heater, whose unit this spring will be without regulars like cornerback/nickel Corey Tindal and linebacker Evan McKelvey (both rehabbing following surgery) and safety Tiquan Lang. Coach Doc Holliday said Lang is dealing with some personal issues at home in Georgia, and is expected back this summer.
"Some players that had to get better -- had to develop for us -- they did," Heater said when asked what he liked most about the Herd defense last season. "(Ends) Arnold Blackmon had his best year of football and Ra'Shawde Myers did well. At linebacker, Jermaine (Holmes) had his best year of football and Neville Hewitt was really good.
"Up front, (tackle) James Rouse played very well. A few of those guys we had challenged to play better. Armonze (Daniel) and Joe Massaquoi developed (as backup ends), on a completely different level - but before that, they weren't even existent as far as playing. Massaquoi didn't have to be the guy last year. Now, he has to be the guy.
"So, across the board -- particularly up front -- it was a tremendous job by our coaches to get those guys better. Raheim Huskey comes in off the bench at mike linebacker in the (C-USA) championship game, and just doesn't play - he does great."
Heater wants players to make a similar step this spring and in 2015 fall camp, too.
"Player development is always critical to your success," he said. "This year we've got the same challenge, need a half-dozen or so guys to develop, play better, more consistent football. We have a chance to be a good defense once again.
"Some kids took the challenge of becoming better players. (Steve) Dillon and Jarquez Samuel, they became real players (at nose). They had played a lot of football already, but they weren't very consistent players. They took a major step a year ago, and now they need to take another one."
As spring begins, Dillon is sliding over to fill Rouse's former spot at tackle, with Samuel staying at nose. "We've got five guys for two spots there," Heater said. Massaquoi and Gary Thompson - who dealt with a posterior cruciate ligament sprain last season - are the ends.
At linebacker, the Day 1 top names are D.J. Hunter, Huskey and Stefan Houston. In the secondary, with Tindal getting no contact this spring, the corners are Keith Baxter and Antavis Rowe, with Taj Letman and AJ Leggett back at safety.
"We've got a few guys who need now to take that next step," Heater said. "Massaquoi has to keep coming on, Daniel needs to do that. Gary Thompson needs to take a step. Samuel and Dillon took that step, now they need to take that senior step where they're really outstanding players.
"McKelvey was injured (a Week 5 ACL tear ended his season), so we need him back. Baxter, Leggett ... those guys need to be consistent players, along with some guys that nobody knows about right now need to be consistent players for us."
After the C-USA title game victory over Louisiana Tech, Heater said that one offseason day he'd sit down and look closer at the Herd defense's performance in the team's lone loss - a 67-66 overtime decision to Western Kentucky at Edwards Stadium.
The Herd coordinator got that review of a game in which Marshall gave up 49 first-half points in its own stadium.
"They did a really outstanding job both in scheme and level of execution, so hand it to them," Heater said. "They came out that day with a really high level of execution, how they attacked us. It was kind of like a heavyweight fighter, you know.
"Here's a heavyweight fighter who has beaten everybody and one day he gets punched in the mouth by maybe somebody he didn't think about. And he's got to decide how to handle it and he didn't handle it great.
"We had our best defensive game the week before at UAB. We won that game on defense (23-18), a tremendous effort. And you start feeling pretty good about yourself and you go out and that other team comes out, and they look different.
"I always say some teams, on certain Saturdays, come out with more energy, more mindset, a better attitude and they're not the same team you saw on tape. Hey, that team was good, but that day, they were really good. With all that being said, we didn't handle getting punched in the mouth very well. We actually responded decently in the second half, but those 30 minutes, it was not going great at all.
"We play that half like we played all year, we're 14-0."
Heater's goal was to have a top 10 defense in what he considered several critical categories. One is scoring defense, where the Herd ranked 18th, at 21.0 points per game. A 19.2 average got a team into the top 10. Marshall missed that by 26 points - or a little more than half of the WKU first-half total.
Elsewhere, Marshall was No. 8 in tackles for loss (7.5 per game), ranked third in opponents' third down conversions (30.9 percent) and was No. 9 in yards per play (4.73), a category Heater called "really big for us."
"To me, that an interesting statistic," Heater said, "because among teams that played 14 games, we played more plays on defense (1,056) than any team in the country among the teams that played decent defense, because our offense scored so fast.
"The only teams that played 14 (games) and had more plays than us were Washington, Bowling Green and Arizona, and they had bad defenses. Wisconsin had the top-ranked defense in 14 games, and played more than 200 fewer plays than us (839).
"Average per play is a true indicator of what you're doing."
Heater said he's anxious to get a practice look at youngsters like ends Ryan Bee (redshirted last season) and Damien Dozier and cornerback Chris Williams-Hall.
"And the two transfer guys we have, Blake Keller (UCF) at Fox (rush end) and Shawn Petty (Maryland) at linebacker, we hope they can come in and give you something right away," he said. "They played for good programs before, so you'd like to think they can improve your situation right away."
Heater is the Herd's secondary coach, and he knows that the loss of a lockdown corner like Roberts - particularly for a team that lives in man coverage - can leave a gaping hole.
corners have to show up this spring, for a lot of reasons," Heater said. "Tindal's limited (in his participation) and Baxter's got the talent; he just has to stay healthy. Young guys like Rowe, Rodney Allen, Chris Williams-Hall ... they're going to get plenty of reps.
"And we need more consistent play out of one safety. We were fine at one spot, inconsistent at the other. We weren't great at that position, and we need to be better.
"Overall on defense, the key to our success a year ago, the key this year is the same - guys taking another step. You can't stay where you are at any place. We were good and we want to be good again; that's our challenge this year. Two years ago, we weren't big enough or strong enough. Now, we are.
"The good news is we have the material to work with, guys who can do that. The challenge in coaching is to develop players."