April 5, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Blake Brooks is where he always thought he could be. It just took him a while to get there.
After helping South Charleston to back-to-back state high school football titles for Coach John Messinger in 2008 and ’09, Brooks waited for a major college scholarship offer that never came.
He was a 300-pound lineman recruiters said was too short, so he took a Division II offer of a half-scholarship at Fairmont State.
Now, as Marshall’s starter at left guard during spring drills prior to his redshirt senior season, Brooks is at the top of a depth chart he first tried to climb from the other side of the ball.
“When he was playing defensive tackle, nobody talked to him,” Herd defensive tackles coach J.C. Price said through smiles over Brooks’ shoulder after Saturday’s practice. “Now, he’s on offense and he does interviews.”
Brooks grinned widely at that.
That toothy grin is what got him his nickname, “Cheese,” in August 2011. It was given to him by none other than star defensive end Vinny Curry.
That seems like ages ago to Brooks, who has prospered with his move to offense and emerged with then-true freshman teammate Michael Selby at the guard spots during Marshall’s Military Bowl victory over Maryland last December.
The 6-foot-1 Brooks played last season at 302 pounds. He’s up to 317 now, but “you know how in the winter, you accidentally put this winter coat on?” he said. “By August, I’ll be back down there, down where I was.”
Herd Coach Doc Holliday
calls Brooks “a road grader-type of guy.”
Brooks smiled at that, too. His position coach, Alex Mirabal, also smiles when asked about Brooks.
“He’s been excellent this spring, everything we thought he’d be,” Mirabal said. “Our goal this spring was to get bigger and more physical between the A gaps and he and Selby have given us that. ‘Cheese’ has been phenomenal, opened up that backside A gap so that we can run the ball in there, whether it’s power or inside zone.
“In watching all the cut-ups from last season, we thought that was a major issue for us in the run game, that backside guard on the A-gap defender, in moving that A-gap defender. We feel now with the addition of Selby and Brooks into the lineup, now we’re able to erase that backside A gap, and what that will do is allow the running back to make his cut deeper into the line of scrimmage.”
Brooks had played only 47 snaps last season prior to the Military Bowl, mostly in mop-up situations. On the game’s third series, Mirabal inserted Brooks and Selby on an offensive line that also included backup Trevor Mendelson, who was subbed in at right tackle for Clint Van Horn, who was injured early in the game.
Those players performed to rave reviews from Holliday and Mirabal against a physical and large Terps’ defensive front.
“That game helped us a lot, but it wasn’t just the bowl game that gave me and Mikey confidence, it was bowl practice as well,” Brooks said. “That gave us even more time to craft a technique, and get better with the ‘ones’ when we were in there doing game prep there for a while. Then, we just made it happen.”
Mirabal said he wasn’t sure how it would work out when Brooks and Selby got their bowl-game baptism.
“That bowl-game experience, his performance, made a tremendous difference, not only for him, but for me,” Mirabal said. “He played about 30 snaps. Before that, he only got out there when we had an advantage score-wise.
“Cheese is obviously an older guy, and having played defense, he understands a defensive lineman’s leverage and techniques. And he’s been exactly what we thought he was going to be when we inserted him into the lineup.”
Brooks played one season (2010) at defensive tackle for Fairmont State, playing in 10 games with two starts, before chasing his Division I dream as a walk-on. He went on scholarship in August 2012. Now, a starting job is his to lose – but there is no indication that’s going to happen.
Brooks said he doesn’t think back much on what was, or how he told people he could be a major college football player. He prefers to dwell on what is.
“Well, I guess it’s not really I told you so,” the Herd lineman said. “I’m the type of person who believes everything happens for a reason. I believe my time at Marshall, coming out of high school, it probably wasn’t my time to be here yet.
“At the time, I was young and dumb, and a little hurt (mentally). And I was just like … as young a person as I was and as hurt as I was, I just wanted a team that just wanted me, someone that wanted me.”
That fire remained through his time at Fairmont. The flame has helped get him to a spot few saw him manning even during last season. His early entrance in the Military Bowl was a stunner to many.
“When I figured out I wanted to come here, I remember talking to Coach Mess on the phone and I was crying, because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go,” Brooks said. “I told him, ‘Mess, I’ve got to go. I can’t be here anymore.’ So, Coach Mess called Coach (Mark) Gale (MU’s assistant athletic director for football operations), and the next thing I knew, it’s Aug. 3 or 4, and I’m here.”
He weighed 337.
“I get here and I wasn’t really in great shape, not in good shape at all, didn’t know what I was getting myself into at all,” Brooks said, smiling again. “And one of the funniest parts -- guys on the team still laugh about it until this day – was our warmups. When Coach Joe (Miday, former strength and conditioning coach) was here, they were really fast-tempo warmups.
“And I about died. I literally felt like quitting during warmups. But the more I stuck with it, the better I got into shape. Back then though, I was like panting and my feet were hurting and I’m out of breath already – during warmups. My first day, here with (defensive line) Coach (Fred) Tate, my feet were killing me and I was puking, and that’s the day I got my nickname from Vinny – ‘Cheese.’”
It is not the biggest contribution the stellar pass-rushing Curry made in a Herd uniform, but it made such an imprint, Holliday never calls Brooks anything except “Cheese.” And last season, Marshall’s goal-line offense had Brooks as a fullback – the “Cheese” package.
“Vinny gave me the nickname because although I was dying and not feeling well at all -- terrible actually – and I was puking and it was hot, I was smiling because I was so happy to be here,” Brooks said. “I was drinking everything and I still felt terrible, puking, and I was smiling.
“And Vinny says, ‘How are you puking while you’re smiling, and when you smile, you over-smile, so we’re just going to call you ‘Cheese,’ OK?
“All right, and the name kind of stuck, and it was whatever.”
Whatever … and as long as it’s not Swiss “Cheese,” a smiling Brooks will fit on that line.