BOGACZYK: At Linebacker, Maybe `H' Stands for Hit-Men
The Word on the Herd-July 9, 2014
July 9, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Marshall football followers may not be aware, but it seems linebackers coach Adam Fuller has gotten added duties coaching H-backs.
Holmes … Hewitt … Hunter … Houston … Huskey … Harris – for the Herd.
“You noticed that too, huh?” Fuller said, grinning, Wednesday morning in his office, when a visitor ran through that one alphabet letter and linebackers on the Herd’s depth chart.
Fuller could even have more future “H” names when February signees Maurice Hall and Frankie Hernandez report in the coming months, but there’s no reason to look down the road yet. The Thundering Herd is loaded at the position for what is expected to be banner 2014 season.
In the two deep, Fuller has seniors Jermaine Holmes and Neville Hewitt at middle linebacker (mike), with redshirt junior Evan McKelvey and sophomore Stefan Houston at the other inside spot (will). Outside ‘backers (sam) are junior D.J. Hunter – moved back to LB from safety – and senior Raheem Waiters.
Add to that veteran backup Cortez Carter and a finally healthy Kent Turene – expected back for the start of August camp – and redshirt freshman Raheim Huskey and true freshman Kaleb Harris, and it’s obvious the second-year Herd assistant coach has plenty of talent on the middle line of Coach Doc Holliday’s defense.
“On the field now (for one hour a week) and in the spring, in meetings in spring, the relationship is there,” Fuller said of no introductions being necessary. “It’s easier to teach because there is trust there both ways. And I really love this group. When you go out in spring and yesterday, I see Jermaine Holmes coaching Raheim Huskey. I see when I get there the drill is already underway.
“There’s a comfort zone there and they have a real sense of what their job is; know what the expectations, the standards are. The expectation is set on how we do things, why we do things. There’s less explanation of, ‘This is what we’re doing and this is why … Or, we need to downsize this today, or I want you to study this opponent in this way.’ They know, and so it’s your typical Year 2 with a group.
“The only person from the group who graduated is (special teams leader) Derek Mitchell, and his role (on defense) diminished as the season went on. So you’re pretty much getting everybody back, and that’s really helped and I think you’ll see it this year.”
One of the expectations is that the Herd will play more base (4-3) defense in 2014 rather than using so much nickel, because the 220-pound Hunter gives Marshall more flexibility in that regard.
If anything, the Herd linebacker corps will be quicker, because in the middle, Holmes had shed 15 pounds (down to 235) and “is in the best shape he’s been since he’s been here,” said Fuller, who added that the Valdosta, Ga., native has had the best months between spring ball and now of and linebacker.
“I think so,” Fuller said when asked if he expected more 4-3-4 than 4-2-5 from the Herd. “If you look at our group, we’re very athletic, and there’s a group there among D.J., Raheem, Evan, Neville, Stefan and even Jermaine now, because he’s made so many strides in just his fitness. All of those guys can play in space, and that just helps.
“The reason you substitute a DB for a linebacker is coverage reasons, for speed reasons, and this gives us the flexibility of going against multiple tight ends on the field or backs who can run and we can cover them, and it secures your run fits a little better, too, with a bigger, more physical player like a D.J. or a Waiters, someone like that playing outside.”
Fuller said because of the Herd’s defensive concepts and schemes under coordinator Chuck Heater, the coaches are not concerned about giving up size by bringing Hunter down. MU’s likely starting three-LB set will average about 220 pounds.
“Look at last year,” the Herd linebackers coach said. “The position D.J. is playing (sam), Stefan Houston played. Stefan was 215 pounds last year. D.J. is 210 pounds now and pound-for-pound, D.J. is stronger than what Stefan was. Waiters played that position last year, before Stefan took over. So, what it’s given us the ability to do is kick Stefan inside (will) behind McKelvey.”
Fuller said in August camp as in the spring, the 220-pound Waiters will see practice time at all three linebacker positions. The senior from Quincy “had an excellent spring,” said Fuller, who has versatility as well as depth in the unit.
“Last season, Evan was on the field a good amount of time,” Fuller said. “Neville played both positions (mike, will) and will do that again. Jermaine played mike, and Stefan played sam, Waiters played sam. In the next group, Cortez plays mike and will. Turene is a mike.
“Waiters is a senior, extremely intelligent, a very hard worker and he’s got great speed. He knows all three positions, so he’s going to be somebody who’s really important to that group. Raheem was a really good special teams player, played well at linebacker in the first two games then struggled a bit and picked it up at the end of the year, but just didn’t get on the field because the others were playing well.
“But he had a really good spring, and I’m a true believer it’s seniors you win championships with. He’s got a great head on his shoulders and he’s really intelligent, and it all depends on how Raheim Huskey and Kaleb Harris develop. We may be able to kick Waiters inside (to will).
“Even though it appears we have enough depth in there, you never really have enough. So, he’s the one in practice you’ll see at all three positions, all of the time. Last year we needed to do it for depth, because Turene went down.”
Fuller said newcomers Huskey – a Gaffney, S.C., product who redshirted last season to retain eligibility -- and Harris, a February signee from Sterling, Ohio, will start out at will and sam, respectively.
“Probably by the first week of practice (it opens Aug. 4), we’ll make a decision on whether Huskey and Harris could flip,” Fuller said. “And depending on how we’re playing inside, if one of those is playing really well and one of those can go back up Hunter, then we have the flexibility to move Waiters (to will), too. So, there’s a lot of flexibility.”
And that’s what Fuller ultimately wants.
“I’m a true believer that they need to be concept-taught,” he said. “Those players all need to be able to move around. We could put Jermaine at will tomorrow and he could play it. We try to coach a concept. McKelvey could play mike, but those two don’t do that. There’s no need. Hunter will always play sam, Jermaine at mike and Evan at will.
“The interchangeable parts will be Neville, Raheem. Houston is less interchangeable than those two. We can play Holmes and Hewitt with D.J. Really, if you look last year, Holmes, Hewitt and McKelvey were our most productive players, which they should be. (Defensive tackle) James Rouse was our most dominant player, but those three, and with Chuck, the way this defense is run, those three positions need to be productive.”
The 2013 Herd that finished 10-4 and won the Military Bowl over Maryland accomplished something Fuller noticed no Marshall club since 2008 had achieved, too.
“It baffled me when I took the job here that it’s been since 2008 (Maurice Kitchens, second team; Mario Harvey, honorable mention) since there were multiple all-conference players at linebacker at Marshall,” Fuller said. “Last season, finally there was (Holmes, second team; McKelvey, honorable mention), and I thought Neville Hewitt should have been. Then Stefan had a productive freshman season (Conference USA all-Freshman selection), and now needs to take another step.”
Fuller said he “wouldn’t count out” Waiters as having an impact on the defense, whether it’s competing with Hunter at sam or moving inside.
So, the 2013 Herd made the biggest scoring defensive improvement (20.2 points per game) in major college football since Central Michigan improved by 20.5 points from 1997 to ’98. What does Fuller want from his unit that has significant difference-making potential?
“I think we need better communication and I think you’ll see that,” the Marshall linebackers coach said. “We teach in concepts, and we’ve challenged that group to understand the concepts better to be able to communicate and link the back end with the front end. That’s been a major emphasis, to make sure we improve in that regard.
“And then watching the (2013 video) cut-ups in the offseason, I think we do need to become better at the point of attack. When teams want to load up and come straight at us – i.e., Rice and Middle Tennessee – we need to improve.
“We’re athletic. Just by our size and structure, we’re a little bit undersized at that position, but that’s structurally how we’re built. And it’s how we designed it. We want to be over-speed; we want to be plus-athleticism, plus in all of the movements.
“So, we’ve given up a little bit in girth, but point of attack, putting blocks back is something we’re trying to emphasize. Scott (Sinclair, strength coach) is doing a great job in the weight room. We always emphasize getting out of the blocks and using our hands in the offseason to become a more downhill and physical group.
“I really love this group. It’s Year 2, and having everybody back really helps. That should make a difference.”