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BOGACZYK: `Sandman' Hopes To Be `Armed' with Confidence

April 17, 2015



            HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Sandley Jean-Felix is well-armed for his big assignment in Marshall football. He just needs to add some length elsewhere in his game.

            "He's a prototype left tackle; we know it; `Sandman' knows it," said the redshirt sophomore's position coach, Alex Mirabal. "He's just got to understand there's no going back."

            The diminutive offensive line coach may be giving up about 13 inches and 170 pounds to the 6-foot-5, 309-pound Jean-Felix, but the tackle from Sunrise, Fla., knows who's the boss.

            "It's a tough transition for me, but with the help of Coach Mirabal, I'm getting there," Jean-Felix said. "People say I'm like a born left tackle, and I've just got to see if I'm that in years to come. This is now. Getting there will be easier with Coach Mirabal teaching me. I should get it."

            Jean-Felix -- he celebrated his 21st birthday Friday -- brings a rare wingspan to the role. His arms have been officially measured at 36 inches by Herd strength and conditioning coach Scott Sinclair, "from the back of shoulder acromiale (bony tip of the shoulder) to the tip of the middle finger."



            Mirabal said Jean-Felix may be a fraction more than that, but what's a silly millimeter when the Herd tackle already has what many NFL personnel men drool over in an offensive lineman.

            Last season, Jean-Felix backed up Marshall's All-Conference USA first team right tackle, Clint Van Horn. The Beckley native is back for his senior season, but Marshall lost Trevor Mendelson, the starter on the left side.

            There are days, however, when Jean-Felix thinks too much about where he came from for the 2015 spring drills. It can be a challenging transition, Mirabal said, adding that Jean-Felix's strong background and correctness can get into the way.

            "The footwork, the hand placement are the toughest things," Mirabal said. "I think people think it's easy from left to right and right to left. No, you've got to completely reverse yourself. It's just continuing to do that with him.

            "I think where Sandman has made the biggest progress is in processing football information. The quarterback gives him the play and you've got about 2-3 seconds not only to a) know what you're doing; b) what communication call you're going to make; c) what your footwork's going to be; d) what is your technique going to be. And it has to happen like that (Mirabal snapped his fingers).

            "That's where he's made the most growth. Instead of being told everything by the left guard or the center, Sandley's now making calls, making adjustments, which to me means that's he gaining a worldly view of more than just his position.

            "It's a matter of getting his footwork down, keeping him confident in his footwork. He'll do something and get beat and immediately, `Coach, I ...' And I say, `No, no, no. Unless you want to go back and back up Clint, and that's not going to happen."

            Jean-Felix trusts Mirabal implicitly. Their relationship goes back to 2012, when the Herd offensive line coach was in the same job at FIU before the Panthers made a coaching change and Mirabal came to Marshall.

            That's when Mirabal saw not only was Jean-Felix could be, but how grooming him for a key position might take some coaxing.

            "He doesn't get frustrated, but he does get down on himself," Mirabal said. "Believe it or not, as big a man as he is, there's not a lot of confidence. He's very soft-spoken, comes from a really good family where you're subservient to your parents. When I went to my in-home visit to him when I was (at FIU), Mom and Dad sat down on the couch and `Big Man' stood behind them.

            "Big Man did not say a word until Mom and Dad said, `You speak now.' That's the way it was. That Haitian culture is a lot like that. And, obviously, football is not that way. You need to be aggressive, so we've been able to get him to that point.

            "But our other players have a lot of respect for Sandman. It's not like he's a big softie. They don't try to mess with him, because they know -- a couple times last year, when he first got here -- fuse lit, he's off ... and the Big Man's got a bite to the bark, too."

            Besides Mirabal, Jean-Felix gives plenty of credit to Herd senior left guard Sebastian "Swede" Johansson, who played what is now Jean-Felix's spot before moving inside.

            "Swede knows everything," Jean-Felix said. "Having him next to me, it helps a lot, especially with the plays, where to go and how to do it. Like if the defensive end loops, then the D-tackle moves to my side and Swede tells me, `Bump it off.' It's all about working together.

            "The hard part for me in moving over has been the feet. The footwork is different, the kicking part of it. You've got to switch your whole game, but I played some left tackle in the 12th grade (at Boyd Anderson High School). This, though, is a whole lot quicker.

            "Coach Mirabal is getting me there."

            Jean-Felix played in every game last season for the C-USA champion and nationally ranked Herd (13-1). He was a regular on field goal and PAT units, but he got only 66 snaps on offense backing up a star like Van Horn.

            At every turn, Mirabal encourages Jean-Felix to use his best weapon -- those arms.

            "Sandley's arm length is almost 37, which is inordinate," Mirabal said. "People talk about D'Brickashaw Ferguson (of the New York Jets) and his arms. He's 35 1/2. Sandley, at 37, is something. He's the longest I've coached."

            By comparison, former Florida tackle Trenton Brown had the longest arms for an offensive lineman at the NFL Combine back in February. Brown was at 36 -- but his 6-8 1/2 height (to go with 370 pounds) has 3 1/2 inches on Jean-Felix.

            Among Herd teammates, the 6-5 Van Horn has 33 1/2 arms. Jean-Felix's much-improved backup, 6-7 Eric Ansley, is at 34 1/4. Fellow tackle AJ Addison is 6-6, with 32-inch arms.

            "The reason that length is important is it allows you to not have to be perfect with your feet or be perfect with your technique because with your length, you can compensate," Mirabal said. "At right tackle, with Clint not practicing much now, we've struggled some in drills because the guys we have in there are short-limbed tackles.

            "You talk about ideal tackles, you talk about Sandley. You talk about Eric Ansley, talk about Clint, because they're long ... Sandley extraordinarily long. We're looking for that in recruiting, and in the NFL, those scouts and personnel guys are looking for that, too.

            "We're phobic with length. That's a reason why (Herd defensive tackle) Jarquez Samuel causes us a lot of headaches (in practice) is because he's so long. I mean, he's long. He's long for anybody, but especially for an interior guy. We try to recruit length. You need it. And it's not height; it's length."

            Jean-Felix is listening, too.

            "I'm trying to learn more how to use my feet in transitioning," Jean-Felix said. "You need to be able to play it right, just not fall back on something. Once I get the hang of it, I can start using my arms more to an advantage, use everything to my advantage."

            For Mirabal and his latest protégé with the "ones," it's about getting it right on the left.

            "Now, it's about continuing to keep him comfortable," said Mirabal, as the Herd points toward the final week of spring drills. "But to be honest, he's more natural and more comfortable at left tackle than right. At right, he'd overstep a lot, roll over his ankle a lot. He opens his hips better at left tackle than on the right side.

            "He's played both. He's played more reps at right tackle than left tackle but I can tell you he moves much better going to his right than he does to his left, and I think it might be because he is right-handed so that's natural for him.

            "But Sandman's got a tremendous desire to get better and he's gotten himself in tremendous physical shape. He's just not a big man. He's a big man who can move well. He's got to keep working on and keep speeding up the processing of information ... and he will."