July 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Those “baby backs” went from walking to running last season for Marshall Football. Now, it’s time for more steps.
So says Remi Watson, who with Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler emerged for the Thundering Herd as redshirt freshmen a season ago.
Marshall’s 2012 season was highlighted by the passing game. The Herd led major college football in the air (365.1 yards per game) and quarterback Rakeem Cato was chosen the Conference USA MVP.
However, as the season progressed, so did the Herd’s rushing attack.
By the end of the season, Marshall ranked 55th nationally in rushing offense (169.2 yards per game), up from 96th (120.1) a year earlier and 114th (97.7) in 2010.
Grooms was named the C-USA Freshman of the Year after a 737-yard season. Grooms, Butler, Watson and junior Essray Taliaferro combined for nearly 1,975 yards, and now they’re playing under new MU running backs coach Thomas Brown, who ran for 2,646 career yards at Georgia (2004-07).
Watson, who did the meet-and-greet session at Chase Bank earlier this week for the “Get in Company with the Herd” corporate ticket sales program, said the sophomore-led running game is ready to make advances in 2013 and create a more balanced attack.
“We’re not under any pressure, I don’t think,” Watson said of the Herd, which averaged 534 yards and 41 points per game in Coach Doc Holliday’s third season. “We were efficient last year, and we’re still young, but we feel like we can be better on offense this season with Cato as our leader.
“He’s never satisfied and we’re never satisfied. We’re just trying to be better than we were last year. That may not seem realistic after some of the numbers we put up, but we have a chance to perform just as well, if not better.”
In its C-USA forecast, the Phil Steele College Football Preview magazine ranked the Herd running backs No. 2 in the league, behind Tulsa, which returns Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas at the position. They combined for 2,044 yards, but MU has more returning depth with experience. (Steele ranks Marshall first at quarterback, receiver, offensive and defensive lines).
Steele forecasts a Marshall-Tulsa matchup in the C-USA title game (the teams play Nov. 14 in the regular season), with the Herd going to the Liberty Bowl.
“I’m happy with all of those,” the 5-foor-11, 202-pound Watson said. “I’d definitely like winning the Eastern Division and the league championship.”
The Herd freshman trio began to really emerge last season in Week 4, as Marshall opened C-USA play with a 54-51 double-overtime win at Rice. Watson started that game and had 84 yards, his season high. Butler ran for his season-best 166 yards, while Grooms had 103.
Marshall’s 334 ground yards at Rice were the most in a game for the Herd in eight C-USA seasons and the high in a road game since September 1983, when MU gained 336 in a 35-0 victory at Morehead State.
The emergence also came a week after a 27-24 home loss to Ohio. Marshall had only 59 rushing yards in that one, led by Cato’s 32. Van had 15, Watson 10 (on two carries), Butler 2 (on one rush). Grooms didn’t play.
“That game really hurt us,” Watson said. “We (myself, Butler, Grooms) just kind of honed in on it, and then we had the Rice game right after that.
“We sat down and talked and said, ‘It’s time to turn it on.’ All three of us, when have a chance, ‘Go do it, it’s time to take over this backfield.’”
Watson’s four starts led Herd running backs, but the Lakeland, Fla., native said it doesn’t matter who starts or fishes, but who performs when given the opportunity – as rising senior Taliaferro did in his 13-yard season finale at East Carolina.
“Like I’ve said before, we look at it like the competition makes us better,” Watson said. “When it’s time to strap up again in camp, when one of us makes a play, the other guys feel like they’ve got to make another play just to stay out there in the running.
“The three-headed monster is the three-headed monster, and we just go with it. Then you’ve got Ray (Taliaferro) and Ray ran the ball real well when he got the chance.
“We’re all competitive. We just have fun competing among us. We’re all competitors and we push one another, but we’re all brothers in that room, and we’re ready to get after it in August.”
Watson said Holliday’s hire of Brown is paying dividends, a year after former running backs coach JaJuan Seider introduced the rookie trio to game competition last season.
“JaJuan was more of a football-smart guy, so it was like having a second offensive coordinator as a coach,” Watson said. “Coach Brown was actually a running back (Seider was a QB), so he’s giving us more of actually how to play our position better.”
“He’s doing a good job, teaching us some things we’ve never done before, and we’ve been playing the position all our lives. He brings the more physical part of the running back game to us.”
Watson sees Marshall running more often and with more success in 2013, and said the Herd is pointing toward a schedule that includes four new conference foes and a few regular rivals.
“It will be good to go play in Florida, close to home, two times this season (at FAU and FIU),” Watson said. “We play some new teams we haven’t played before in the conference and that’s interesting.
“The Virginia Tech game (Sept. 21), it’s out of conference, but it’s a big game. Ohio -- that’s the one we’ve all got circled on our calendar. That was a tough one to swallow last year, but we’re ready for them this time.”