April 28, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Once A.J. Leggett finally got onto the football field for Marshall, his performance was eye-opening. He led the 2013 Thundering Herd with four interceptions.
Not bad for “a guy just trying to come along, and at times running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” he said.
With Marshall’s fifth spring practice under Coach Doc Holliday completed, Leggett seems primed for a big year at free safety. He’s healthy. He’s been a dedicated weight room performer – much of the work on his own, Holliday praised.
Perhaps most importantly, “Now, I know what I’m doing,” he said.
The redshirt sophomore from Miami came to Marshall in 2012 as the Herd’s first four-star (Rivals.com) recruit (since joined by three teammates -- linebacker Stefan Houston, wideout Angelo Jean-Louis and tight end Deon-Tay McManus). He thought he’d play and have an immediate impact at cornerback.
The second week of August camp, Leggett tore his right labrum and rotator cuff. He was done for the season and his rehab following surgery kept him in a red, non-contact jersey in spring a year ago.
By then, with veteran coordinator Chuck Heater running the defense and coaching the secondary, Leggett had been moved from corner to safety.
“Coming in, Coach Heater told me I could be a big part of the defense,” Leggett said after a practice earlier this week. “He said he needed a safety to come in and produce. I didn’t have a perfect season, but I did what I was able to do, and the outcome was good, a 10-win season. It was good.
“I’d never played safety a day in my life, and I thought coming to college, it would be a pretty hard adjustment. But I found out I can make more plays at safety than I can at corner.
“At corner, you’re isolated on the outside. At safety, you’re in the middle of things more often. It’s more of an impact position for me.”
Leggett backed up junior college transfer Taj Letman for the first half of last season. The redshirt freshman made his first start in a home romp past Southern Miss, but suffered an ankle injury that kept him out three games. He finished with 45 tackles and those four picks (of the Herd’s 18) in 11 games.
Heater had the corners he wanted in since-graduated Monterius Lovett and Darryl Roberts, who is back for 2014. Leggett’s move was to improve the Herd and allow Leggett to become even more of a playmaker than he might have been outside.
“You always look at trying to take a good skill set at corner, which A.J. had, and you move it inside and then it becomes maybe a really good skill set inside at safety, with his cover skills,” Heater said. “We needed safeties. He has top-end speed, fast, not a 4.4 guy flat out, but he had 4.4 quickness, 4.4 cover skills.
“You take that inside, and you can really help yourself when you put a corner skill set inside, and you become a better secondary.”
Heater said Leggett, who originally was headed to hometown Miami (Fla.) before switching his commitment to the Herd, has shown marked improvement at the position this spring as compared to last season.
“He was up-and-down then, inconsistent, but he had four interceptions and led the team,” Heater said. “You can see he’s got skills, and to A.J.’s credit, he’s responded well to coaching, responded in doing the things he needed to do to get stronger. That shoulder was a problem for him, but he’s gotten much stronger. To his credit, he’s improving. If he keeps improving, he’s going to be a very good player.”
Leggett not only has added about 10 pounds to his frame, he also is stronger at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds.
“Coach Heater told me one thing I definitely needed to do was get stronger, because I needed to work on my tackling,” Leggett said. “Last year, I was ‘low tackling’ a lot, and I needed to change that. I went into the weight room on my own a lot to get stronger and gain more confidence in my ability.
“I wanted to become a more physical tackler. In the weight room, Coach (Scott) Sinclair showed me the way, gave me a lot of confidence in myself. After hurting my shoulder and the surgery, it was a while before I could get in there and really lift. I was limited -- couldn’t do anything. It was frustrating.”
He said that frustration didn’t compare to the August 2012 days just after he was injured, after a first-week of camp impressing teammates and coaches.
“When I got hurt, it felt like my life was over,” Leggett said. “I had big expectations coming in, really wanted to play right away as true freshman. But God puts you through things that you really can’t question. That just wasn’t the plan. Everything happens for a reason, so I just took it for how it was.”
Heater said Leggett is finally healthy, and the coordinator sees even better things from the Miamian this coming season.
“A.J. missed the whole training cycle last winter, then spring practice, and kind of eased into it last summer,” Heater said. “He did a great job in the weight room this winter, and he plays with more confidence, knows what he’s doing at safety now.
“He has really good ball skills, plays the ball really well, and that’s a good quality to have when you’re inside as a safety.”
Fast forward to August camp and the start of the season, what does Leggett see in his own play?
“I want to be more of a complete safety,” he said. “Coach Heater said, ‘We need you to be a ‘guy.’ And I want to step up and be that guy this fall. Last season, I wasn’t really a guy, I was just trying to come along and at times running around like a chicken with my head cut off.
“I was kind of young. So, this year, the game has slowed down for me, and I want to be more of a guy, more of a physical player, more of a consistent tackler, and more of an efficient player.”