March 26, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Alex Mirabal had never seen anything like it.
After spending the first two decades of his football coaching career with teams no farther north than Miami, here was Mirabal making his debut as Marshall’s offensive line coach in a spring practice opener that had to be weathered.
Bone-biting cold. Wind. Drizzle. Sleet. Snow. The 5-foot-5 Mirabal was like a mailman, guiding his much larger charges. Nothing stopped him – or them.
“It actually was pretty neat, with snow coming and going,” Mirabal said after the Herd opened with a 2-hour, 40-minute workout as brisk as the weather. “It was a neat feel for me, the first time ever practicing in any snow like that.
“It was interesting that we were watching offensive line drills before practice, drills I had used at my previous place, FIU, and it was from last spring and it’s sunny and like 70 degrees with palm trees in the background. And the kids are like, ‘Coach, are you kidding me?’
“The contrast with that today was, shall we say, pretty interesting.”
Most people who have been around college football as long as, say, Herd Coach Doc Holliday will tell you that a veteran, experienced offensive line is a large key to having a good season. Well, Marshall’s top six OL names include four seniors and two fourth-year juniors.
In drills Tuesday, redshirt junior center Chris Jasperse was flanked by seniors Garrett Scott and Gage Niemeyer at the tackles and senior Alex Schooler and sophomore Sebastian “Swede” Johansson at guard.
“We’re excited about Swede at left guard,” Mirabal said.
Redshirt junior Josh Lovell is a returning starter at guard, too.
And among those sitting out this spring after offseason surgery is the returning starter at left tackle, redshirt senior Jordan Jeffries.
It’s no wonder Holliday said on the eve of drills: “They’re all back, so we should be better. They’ve all played, so youth is no longer an excuse up front.”
Mirabal has 12 linemen in full-practice mode this spring, with backup center not working contact drills. Jeffries, tackle Corey Tenney and guards Grady Kerr and Tom Collins – he moved over from the defensive front – sitting out.
“We’ve got a couple of dings, but I tell the kids all of the time that we’re going to worry about the guys who are able to go,” Mirabal said. “We have to practice as if we have a game next week.”
Besides the aforementioned five experienced veterans and Johansson, Mirabel has tackles Clint Van Horn, Eric Ansley and Trevor Mendelson on the field, as well as Josh Murriel and converted defensive lineman Blake Brooks at guard, and January enrollee Tyler Combs at center.
The new OL coach shares Holliday’s sentiments about the prospects for a group that has 85 career starts returning.
“We have what I call ‘old eyes,’” Mirabal said. “To me, I saw it out there today with Garrett Scott, saw it with Chris Jasperse, where we’re seeing, first day of practice, certain blitz looks and they know that it’s coming. And Chris is stopping everything and turning protection to stop the blitz.
“That’s a valuable thing to have, those reps those two, that Josh Lovell had, Alex Schooler, Gage Niemeyer have. You can’t buy that.
“That’s why I call them ‘old eyes,’ and they’re great things to have. They know when we go a certain tempo and (quarterback Rakeem) Cato makes a certain call, the defense is probably going to show what it’s doing, so that’s invaluable.”
What they also can contribute to a true freshman like Combs and “comers” like Johansson – from Sweden by way of Raceland, Ky. – is crucial, too.
“We talk about that part of it – a legacy,” Mirabal said. “Part of your legacy as a player is this: What do you leave behind? When you leave here, what have you done to affect those remaining behind? And so it’s part of their job to mentor those kids, take them aside, because sometimes I may jump one of those younger guys and be hard on them.
“And so I tell the older guys part of their job is to be the good cop and help them … it’s competition, but part of that is to help those guys, even when they’re trying to beat you out.”
Mirabal said the line emerged from weight room and agility work leaving their coach impressed.
“We’ve gotten tremendous leadership from Scott, Schooler, Jasperse, by their example and work,” Mirabel said. “They’re not a very vocal bunch, but they’re respected because they’re doing the work. Jeffries hasn’t been able to do a lot, but you can tell he’s a leader, too.
“Dees and Kerr would be right in the mix, but they’re limited. Brooks fits at guard. I’ll tell you who’s had a great offseason, and he’s as strong as an ox, is Clint Van Horn. He can help us at right tackle. The ones I don’t know anything about are Combs, Ansley, Murriel. They’ll run with third group until I can see where they are.”
Mirabal is up-to-date on the shuffling the Herd had to do up front due to injury and inconsistency last season. The solution?
“I told them this is about getting the best five guys on the field,” he said, “but the one thing I’d like to do, they couldn’t because of injuries last year. You need to let them master a position. Sometimes there’s too much shuffling. I saw a lot of that watching last year’s film among those first five guys.
“You have to play as a unit. Our motto is: Five men, one mind. Those five guys have to act as one body and that’s through communication, from knowing how one another is going to react. Believe it or not, when you double-team a guy, everyone doesn’t do it the same.
“You teach it the same, but they need get that feel for one another. One thing I want to get done is create some continuity where those five guys work together. It’s hard for a Garrett Scott to get as good as he can get when – I know some of it had to do with injuries, so he’s playing a little bit of right tackle, a little bit of left, a little bit of right guard. It’s hard when Jasperse is playing center and Jasperse moves to guard. I’m not being critical; I’m critiquing. I’m just saying it’s a thing I’d like to settle on.”
Mirabal also is considering the future – and that’s as soon as August, after the Herd signed four offensive linemen in February.
“There’s more talent here than where I was,” Mirabal said. “They’re bigger, stronger, and I think some of that is because of where we are (geographically), the recruiting area. Florida and south Florida aren’t known as offensive lineman areas.
“I think the guys we have are talented as heck, and the recruiting class we have coming in, Michael Selby from Georgia; Cody Collins and Chris Huhn from Ohio and Sandley Jean-Felix from south Florida. Those four I’m really, really excited about.
“Especially from an attitude standpoint, I think Selby and Collins, those two are above. When I watched all the recruiting film, first thing I did was say I wanted to see film on four we had coming to us. I think Selby is as talented as all get out. He has a chance to be phenomenal. He and Collins, from an attitude standpoint, I think all that’s going to be good for our group.”
Mirabal isn’t into snow jobs. Even at half the size of his players, he takes the direct approach.
"They’ve taken to what we’re trying to teach; everybody teaches things differently,” said the new Herd line coach. “I'm a firm believer kids want to be taught and pushed. When you gain their respect, they'll allow you to push them. That’s what we’re going to do.”