April 27, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – As spring football drills ended for Marshall with Saturday’s Green-White intrasquad scrimmage, the new honest-to-goodness contributors who offer promise for an improved defense in 2013 take two hands to count.
Stefan Houston, Corey Tindal, Taj Letman, Shawn Samuels, A.J. Leggett, Joe Massaquoi … I could go on.
There’s an old hand at something new, too, for Coach Doc Holliday’s team.
As much as anyone, redshirt senior Derek Mitchell is a poster boy for the revamped Marshall defense. He was moved by defensive coordinator Chuck Heater from safety to strongside linebacker on the first day of spring workouts.
But most important to Mitchell and the Herd, the erstwhile walk-on from Point Pleasant is on the field for more than special teams play.
“Every time there’s a change in coaching personnel, there’s always an opportunity for you, whoever it is,” Mitchell said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “Whether you take advantage of that is up to you, not just for me, for every person. A lot of guys stepped up this spring … everyone on defense all showed up, because we had to.”
Mitchell named about eight teammates, then said, “I’m probably forgetting some.” His biggest moment in a Herd uniform came last season at Purdue, when he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Now, as a 208-pound linebacker, chances are he’ll have more for his highlight reel – because he opened as many eyes as anyone during the Herd’s 15 spring practices. When asked who opened his eyes, Heater started with the Point Pleasant product.
“A guy you wouldn’t know much about going in is Derek Mitchell
,” Heater said. “He’s done a good job, playing very fast, and we put him in a lot of situations at outside linebacker. He’s a Sam linebacker in our basic package, and yeah, he’s a little bit light (208 pounds), but in one package, he’s more of an outside linebacker not coming down on anybody, so it works.
“But he plays hard, plays fast, he strains, all things you’re looking for in a defensive player. He’s been a pleasant surprise, to be sure. And we believe it’s real. He’s definitely going to have an opportunity to continue that for us. That’s one who really came out of nowhere for us.”
The 6-foot-1 Mitchell – whose dad, Darrell, played as a tight end for Holliday at West Virginia a quarter-century ago – wasn’t so sure about being Heater’s focus.
“I just consider myself a piece of the puzzle,” said Mitchell, who has 38 tackles in three Herd seasons. “Eleven people have to play on defense, and everyone’s a piece. Put it all together, you’re going to have a great defense.
“If you only have 10, you might be OK, but to be really good, we need all 11 pieces and I really think that’s how we are now, as a whole. We all need to play together. Coach Heater says we all need to take ownership and not let our brothers down.”
Mitchell admitted he was a big perplexed when told he was being moved from safety to linebacker. After all, the scale doesn’t lie.
“I was like, well, I have to gain a little bit of weight, be a little tougher,” Mitchell said. “I accepted it and tried to welcome it with open arms. At first it was a little hard to get used to, not really being so close (to the line of scrimmage), but in Coach Heater’s scheme, compared to last year, the linebackers are more involved in the blitz.
“I’m the Sam, so I’m always encountering the big boys, the O-line, and that’s something I didn’t get to do a lot, hardly ever. So, that’s different, me being 208 pounds, going against someone 280-, 290-plus. I’ve just had to use my speed against them and do my best.”
Mitchell is one of only nine Herd players left on the roster from prior to Holliday’s arrival in December 2009. He said he tries “to set an example” for younger Herd players – and no doubt that might be easier if he’s in the two-deep on defense, rather than just performing on special teams.
“Just getting the opportunity to be on the field on defense means a whole, whole lot to me,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to explain. I’m just doing what I love to do, playing ball, and getting this chance as a senior is great. Playing defense besides special teams is just really special.”
Mitchell said he wants to report to August camp at 215 pounds, because he knows from experience he’ll lose a few pounds.
“About 212 would be good for me (season weight),” he said. “Me being quick, in the blitz game, it’s to my advantage, so I don’t want to gain so much weight I lose my speed. I do definitely need to be a little heavier than I am, though.”
Early in workouts, Holliday said Mitchell “looks like a different guy running around out there.”
Adam Fuller, the new Herd linebackers coach, said Mitchell – also a backup long snapper – figures into the middle row of the Herd defense that has taken a significant step forward this spring.
“He’s done a really good job,” Fuller said of Mitchell. “We gave him a role, moved him from safety to linebacker because we thought he could help us. It’s a position we were light in, and he was going into his senior year, a veteran player, he’s been on an uptick since the day we moved him.
“We like big fast kids, but if they’re small fast kids, it’s OK if they’re making plays. His quickness, speed matters. He plays with really good balance, his knees bend, and he’s a very physical kid.
“He uses leverage, I know he’s only about 205, and you’d like him to be bigger, but we’re dealing with his last year. He’s probably not changing. There are certain ways he can play the game and be successful, whether in he’s in the box, or removed.
“Derek’s shown up every single day. He plays. He’s done things the right way, and he’s talented. And even when we went to our last package we put in, we put him into it, because of the number of plays he was making.
“I’ve got high expectations for him in the fall. He’s going to play.”
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The Green-White finale wasn’t just a chance for Herd players to show their stuff for a final time on the field until preseason drills begin the first few days of August.
It also was a big recruiting day for Holliday’s program.
Marshall had about 50 prospects on hand, with players in from West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, and one foreign nation – Norway.
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The Herd now moves toward semester exams (May 6-11), and then has a week away from campus before reporting back May 20 to begin summer conditioning.