BOGACZYK: It’s a New-Name Game at LB for Fuller
The Word on the Herd-March 30, 2016
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – With apologies to Penn State, Marshall kind of felt like it was Linebacker U. in recent seasons.
For Herd football this spring, however, it’s “Linebacker … Who?”
After coaching multi-year starters like Evan McKelvey, D.J. Hunter, Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes in his first three seasons as Marshall’s linebackers coach, Adam Fuller has a depth chart that’s seriously under construction as spring practice begins.
Rising senior middle linebacker Devontre’a Tyler – you can call him “Tre” – started the final 12 games as the Herd finished 10-3 with a St. Petersburg Bowl victory last season. Otherwise, names like Petty, Huskey, Hernandez, Hancock, Durant and Grimes are filling spots.
“I’ll admit, I thought Tre played really good football last year,” Fuller said of Tyler, who finished with 42 tackles and played 440 snaps in 2015. “We didn’t really know what we had with him at first, and we didn’t know what we had my first year here (2013) with Neville, with Evan, with Jermaine, and then they emerged really fast.
“So, we’re hoping that happens this year. I think Tre is a rock and this will be his best year of football. And then everybody else? (Shawn) Petty’s played a little bit. (Chase) Hancock has played a lot of special teams, Frankie (Hernandez) a little special teams – and then it’s wide open.
“It’s Day 1, and Frankie Hernandez was with us all last year – and you saw that. Doyle Grimes and Davon Durant – they were not – and you saw that. So, from Practice 1 to 2, how quickly will those other ones catch up? I don’t’ know. I do know there’s a lot of work to do. I’m sure of that … There is a lot of development to go on in this group right now.”
You could forgive Fuller for thinking “what was,” but he’s not that kind of guy. He’s coached the last two Conference USA Defensive Players of the Year in Hewitt (2014) and McKelvey (2015). In three seasons, Herd linebackers also have two all-C-USA first team honors, a pair of second team selections and three honorable mentions.
Hunter, Holmes, McKelvey and Hewitt combined for 126 starts and 1,057 tackles in their careers.
Now, Fuller has Petty, a senior who had 37 tackles last season in eight games after returning from a neck injury suffered in August camp. Junior Raheim Huskey, backing up Tyler at mike, had 24 stops in seven games before being suspended for the second half of last season.
Former walk-on Hancock had only 79 defensive snaps as Hunter’s backup at sam (strongside). Hernandez played only 56 snaps as a redshirt freshman in 2015. Durant is a touted junior transfer from Arizona State who sat out last season. Grimes is a redshirt freshman.
So, does Fuller coach differently sans his former stars?
“You still coach to a group, but what I’ve always said is there are steps to coaching,” the Herd linebackers coach said after Tuesday’s initial spring workout. “Step 1, footwork, step 2, handwork. There’s tackling. Block progression. How you fit on the run. How you fit on the pass. And some of those (former) guys, when they were here, you could just skip to step 6. You didn’t have to go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
“With new guys, you still start at 1, but you watch them and maybe you can go to 3 right away. I don’t need 2. He’s got it already. I coach step 2 all the time, but it doesn’t have to be beaten upon with him. You start at Step 1 with new guys, then it’s about how natural they are at certain things. You don’t spend a lot of time on stuff on which they’re natural.
“Yeah, I coach some through every step all of the time, but those guys are just role players and maybe it will click at some point. You don’t coach them any different, but the process could be accelerated with the older guys that we had.”
Fuller also is trying to figure out who’s going to be where. A pre-camp depth chart had Petty and Durant at will (weakside), with Tyler and Huskey in the middle and Hancock and Hernandez at Hunter’s former sam berth.
However, in the first spring practice, Petty worked some at mike, and Hernandez was at will with Durant. And in the Herd’s defensive scheme, the two inside linebackers (mike and will) are often interchangeable because they’re taught that way.
“Hancock is at sam,” Fuller explained. “Frankie has some natural fit instincts, so we’ve actually got him in the box (at will) right now, so we rotated some other younger guys out at sam. It’s really fluid right now.
“In the past, Jermaine was really the only guy we’ve ever had who played one position (middle). Neville played both (mike and will). Evan played both. D.J. – against Purdue last season he played all three positions. So, it’s about teaching them the concepts. For the most part, Tre’s going to play mike, but when we go nickel, Chase Hancock is going to go into the box (at will, in a two-linebacker set). So, it’s hard to give a depth chart right now.”
Whether there’s another Hewitt, McKelvey, Hunter or Holmes in the bench, it’s way too soon to tell. But the growth in this group is crucial for the Herd. Coordinator Chuck Heater said prior to camp that “our big challenge (on defense) will be in replacing linebackers and corners.”
By creating some flexibility among the candidates at the three spots, Fuller also enhances the depth of his group.
“I think it’s important to force them to be versatile,” Fuller said. “I think it just helps me coach a concept if you don’t pigeon-hole a position. It forces you to be a better teacher. It forces you to be a better student when I can teach the concept and not just cookie-cut it to that position. If you do that, I think you handicap ‘em.
“Next thing you know, you’re at Practice 5 and he doesn’t know that much because he hasn’t listened that much. So, I think it’s important to teach the entire concept to them and it’s my job to simplify it so they can line up and play fast.”
And that’s the bottom line. That’s what made those guys with 126 career starts so good.
It’s early, so does Fuller worry about most of those in his group thinking instead of playing?
“Yeah, that’s my job,” he said, smiling. “That’s it. I told them, ‘We’ve got three things we really need from you. Run to the football. Never finish a play blocked. Take coaching.’ That’s your job. Everything else is mine. You do those things; I’ll do my job. You just do those things and we’ll be all right.”
Fuller approaches it like this: Where there’s a will linebacker, there’s a way.