April 28, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - Chuck Heater has seen enough ... for now, anyway.
The new Marshall defensive coordinator emerged from spring practice with optimism sprinkled with realism about the unit Thundering Herd football needs upgraded in a big, big way in 2013.
Last season, there were 124 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. With a 5-7 record, the Herd ranked thusly: 123 (scoring defense), 105 (rush defense), 103 (total defense) and 94 (pass defense). Marshall was 99th in opponent third-down conversions.
That's why Coach Doc Holliday brought in his former Florida staff sidekick, Heater, to run the defense and coach the secondary. By all accounts, Holliday got the right guy, and throughout the spring Heater's players played as well as talked a good game as they adapted to the aggressive new scheme and packages.
"I'm encouraged," Heater said of spring drills, which ended with Saturday's Green-White Game. "We've got some guys who played who -- from what I saw on tape -- look like they're playing better than last year.
"That's what you expect, a year of growth, and then we have the infusion of a few new players, which has helped. So, my sense is we're playing a little faster which is what we hoped to do, a little quicker, with a little more confidence.
"But my sense also is that it's way premature to make any final thoughts about it. We've got a ways until (preseason camp opens the first week of) August."
Heater and defensives assistants Adam Fuller, J.C. Price and Sean Cronin streamlined the Herd D. They are playing far more man coverage than a year ago under former coordinator Chris Rippon. Some key recruiting "gets" have added talent and depth.
It's not quite this simple, but in a way it's like the old baseball adage: "See the ball; hit the ball." Heater and Co. don't make it complicated.
"I think we did a good job (picking up new packages and schemes)," the veteran coordinator said. "We keep tweaking it and try to get it cleaner, but they've done a good job of executing it and understanding it.
"I'm a little sensitive to the fact I never feel like the players can do too much. I feel like they can do less than more when it comes to scheme and how much thinking is involved. I've always been really sensitive to the fact you've got to let players play fast and you get in the best call you will.
"You're better off playing fast. What's most important is winning those one-on-one battles anyway, without thinking.
"I would suspect we've put in 85 percent of our scheme and they've handled it pretty well. I think it's structured in such a way that the effort is being made that they don't have to do a lot of thinking.
`There aren't a lot of checks, how to get lined up. The system is that way to begin with and consequently, because of that, they've done a good job on focusing on just what we ask them to do, and hopefully it's helping them in that regard."
Heater said that the Herd defense has gotten more work than he perhaps expected from the red-jerseyed (no-contact) players coming back from injuries, like lineman James Rouse, safety A.J. Leggett and corner Keith Baxter, and more is expected when linebackers Evan McKelvey and Raheem Waiters are able to get back to full work in the preseason.
"We only had (redshirt freshman Kent) Turene for four practices, but he really showed a bit in those four days," Heater said of the rookie linebacker who tore ligaments in his left ankle and needed surgery. "He's going to play for us. We felt a little bit on Turene like we did about Stefan (Houston) before the injury."
True freshman Houston opened eyes immediately at weakside linebacker, as did Corey Tindal, who figures into Heater's plans at corner as well as impressing as the nickel in 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 sets.
"We're just trying to get better," Heater said. "Stefan got us better, Corey Tindal got us better. Those guys had a big impact on us this spring."
Then, there were returnees that jumped out on the field after Heater had watched tape on them this winter after his arrival from Temple - like a redshirt senior who was a backup safety and special teams player in the past.
"A guy you wouldn't know much about going in is Derek Mitchell," Heater said of the Point Pleasant product. "He's done a good job, playing very fast, and we put him in a lot of situations at outside linebacker, moving up from safety.
"He's a Sam (strongside) in our basic package, and yeah, he's a little bit light (204 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 I think 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 day we got back to spring ball, we moved him up from safety.
"Steve Dillon has made tremendous strides (at tackle). Ra'Shawde Myers has made a move at end, become a much better football player. Houston has been a real plus. You can just feel him out there, see him twitching by people. Tindal has been real impressive, how he practices, the tempo, what he brings, other guys can feel a piece of that when you have a guy doing that.
"Those are some of the newer guys going in you didn't know about, but they'll make us better because of what they've shown us."
And Heater said there's more on the way, with Josh Brown (tackle) and Gary Thompson (end) becoming eligible to join the program immediately, and recruits like junior college linebacker Neville Hewitt and end Arnold Blackmon ready to step on campus.
Before spring drills, Heater said his positions of concern were safety and linebacker. He feels much better about those spots after 15 spring practices.
"D.J. Hunter is back from outside `backer to safety, and he was a very productive player for us a year ago," Heater said. "Shawn Samuels has done well back there, a young player. I didn't realize how young he was; it's his first spring back there.
"(Junior college transfer) Taj Letman has got a chance. He's not there yet, but then he's done some good things, and then A.J. Leggett, who's done some stuff in red (jersey).
"Going into spring, I didn't know we had any safeties. I'd say those four guys give us a chance. It looks like there's some depth there, but it's early."
At linebacker, Heater said Houston "will really help us and Jermaine Holmes and Billy Mitchell have improved, both Mike (middle) `backers. Both are playing better, functioning better. All of our guys I feel like are fundamentally better.
"Cortez Carter is there. McKelvey, Waiters will be back and with a few guys who made some differences this spring, like a Derek Mitchell. Add in those guys that have been out and I feel like we're two-deep at the position whatever package we're in."
Heater's cornerbacks have made him smile most days.
"Going in I felt pretty good, and I still do," Heater said. "Pac-Man (Monterius Lovett) has gotten better, and Swag (Darryl Roberts) really started improving the second, third week. Tindal is a corner, too, in a sub package. Derrick Thomas has done good things at times and Baxter has been limited, but Baxter is very talented.
"All five of those guys ... If you were going recruiting, you'd go recruit those five guys again."
Up front, the Herd returns starters in ends Alex Bazzie and Jeremiah Taylor and tackle Brandon Sparrow. Dillon ended the spring as the other "one" at tackle.
"At end you've got JT, Bazz, Myers, Joe Massaquoi, and he's got some real talent, he just has to play," Heater said. "Inside, there's Sparrow, Dillon, Jarquez (Samuel), Rouse. Brown will be inside. Thompson will be an end with his hand on the ground."
Heater's players know what he wants. More importantly this spring, they've played with a fervor that shows "they know they weren't very good last year," the coordinator said. "Everyone has pride; they want to show they're better than that.
"I'm not disappointed in anything other than fact that you'd like the red jersey guys to not be red jersey guys, but we sure got a lot out of them despite that. McKelvey, Waiters, Rouse ... those are among the guys you count on being players, stepping up.
"I've been satisfied. I think they did a good job taking coaching. Everybody's got issues, things they're working on in their game, and those kids focus on that. You tell them about it and you feel like they're working on it, making an honest effort to change, to improve. That's key.
"Overall, in terms of what we got accomplished, what the kids responded to, I'm not disappointed in any way."
Jack Bogaczyk, a three-time West Virginia Sportswriter of the Year, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.