April 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – It was worth the wait, after all.
When 2012 Marshall football signee Tyler Combs decided to delay his arrival on campus as a grayshirt, it “was a big shock” to the offensive lineman who has finally made the short trip up U.S. 52 from Louisa, Ky.
“To be honest, I thought it might be a curse at first,” said Combs, who has quickly moved onto the second unit in spring drills. “All my buddies I played with (at Lawrence County High) were off to college, and I was stuck at home. It turns out grayshirting was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Combs, a two-time Kentucky All-State first team pick, made the best of it. He enrolled this January, and despite finding himself at an unfamiliar position, he’ll be indoctrinated in kelly green ahead of other freshmen who won’t report to Coach Doc Holliday’s program until June.
His arrival also has aided the Herd, because No. 2 center Cam Dees is out of contact work this spring following shoulder surgery immediately after last season.
So, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Combs is out there snapping in Dees’ spot. The big Kentuckian also will be learning both guard positions soon. And in his months-in-waiting to join the Herd, he did have some strong Marshall offensive line connections.
“I moved on over here,” Combs said. “My grandparents have a house in Kenova, so I just moved in there. I stayed there did some lifting to try to get stronger, and Luke Salmons, my old high school coach, he’s at Cabell Midland High School now and I went out there.
“I worked with Luke and (assistant coach) Matt Altobello (both former Herd linemen) as kind of a GA (graduate assistant) at Cabell Midland. I worked out some with the team, kept my hand in it so I wouldn’t be rusty when I got here.”
There is a Salmons’ echo that continues to reverberate for Combs as he snaps to Herd quarterbacks in practice. He’d been a tackle and guard as a four-year starter for the LCHS Bulldogs.
“I have snapped the ball a little bit,” Combs said. ‘Luke always used to tell me, ‘Tyler, you need to snap the ball; that’s where you’ll be playing in college.’ I was like, ‘Whatever. I’m 6-4, 6-5, I’ll play tackle or guard.’
“Well, whenever we’d have a passing league tournament, I’d be snapping. Luke finally talked me into it. That was the only time I’d snap. Then, I kind of got out here and I was thrown into the fire. Cam’s hurt, and the other center (Anthony Spano) quit, so I’m into the fire behind (starter) Chris Jasperse, who’s been great with me.
“It’s been good, kind of learning on the fly. You don’t want Cam to be hurt, don’t want anyone to be hurt, but I’m getting a lot of great reps. Instead of me just taking half the reps (as backup), I’m splitting reps with Chris. It’s kind of good for me to be thrown into the fire.”
The Herd’s new offensive line coach, Alex Mirabal, said Combs’ baptism will continue through spring ball. He’s been impressed by Combs, who is nicknamed “Big Country.”
“He has a tremendous care factor, tremendous desire,” Mirabal said of Combs. “Coach (Chuck) Heater (defensive coordinator) says when you get kids who care about the sport, love the sport and work hard at it, the game of football rewards those kids, and Tyler’s one of those kids getting rewarded. The fact is he loves playing football and he wants to get better.
“Starting a week ago to now, his progress is unbelievable. There’s been a few scattered (shotgun) snaps, but Tyler’s making the calls already, telling those guys on the second line where to go, already doing the job a center does.
“All he’s lacking is strength. He got here in January after helping with the high school team; he wasn’t in a structured weightlifting program. That’s what lacking, and he’s getting that now. He’s got everything else you want, the desire, the willingness to learn, and it’s going to take him a long way here.”
Mirabal said Jasperse has “done a great a job taking Tyler under his wing, settling him down.” The Herd line coach said Dees’ absence is pushing Combs’ maturation on the field.
“I always tell Tyler that in this offense we have to go so fast,” Mirabal said. “I tell him the faster we go, the slower you’ve got to go. If not, you’re going to drive this thing into the wall. So, he’s just got to process things and slow things down as there’s chaos going on around him.
“The thing is, Tyler did not play center in high school, and probably if Cam Dees is out there, Tyler’s not playing center now. So, he’ll provide competition for Cam when he comes back, good to go in August.
“Tyler also provides us depth. Now, we’ve got three centers instead of two, and now I’ll start to move Tyler around a little bit in drills so he gets used to playing another position. I won’t do it in a live scrimmage but he’ll play inside, guard or center. He’s just a tough kid, good athlete, good feet.”
Combs has been asked to practice at a level rarely seen for a true freshman on the offensive front. He’s getting Mirabal’s daily sermons, too.
“He’s hard, but a really great teacher,” Combs said of the Marshall line coach. “He’s a guy who will really get on you and push you, but at the same time he’ll bring you up.
“The big thing is it doesn’t matter if you mess up. Just learn and just go 100 percent.”