July 20, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When Chris Barclay looks at his Marshall running backs, he sees “unique ability, playmaking ability, unique speed.”
But there’s something missing … and the first-year Thundering Herd assistant coach isn’t just referring to Essray Taliaferro, the 2013 starter who took his 1,140 yards of last season with him at May graduation.
Barclay, the 2005 ACC Player of the Year in Wake Forest’s backfield, has a talented trio of Floridians in redshirt juniors Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson, and Barclay said he really likes two redshirt freshman newcomers, Brandon Byrd and Tony Pittman.
Last season, led by Taliaferro, Marshall rushed for 206 yards per game – the program’s best number since it returned to major college football in 1997 from NCAA Division I-AA success. But there was something else about Taliaferro that impressed former backs coach Thomas Brown and made the senior the starter.
“You have to learn to play without the football,” Barclay said in his Shewey Building office a couple of days ago. “We made a lot of strides there in the spring and we’re getting there, but we’ve got to get better.”
Barclay is talking about pass protection, which is of utmost importance with senior star quarterback Rakeem Cato needing to stay upright when the defense brings the kitchen sink before Cato has a chance to slice and dice his way to first downs through the air.
“Grooms is probably one of the most explosive players I’ve ever been around,” Barclay said when asked about the backs’ pluses and minuses. “Butler, his instincts are incredible and both of those kids have great vision, as does Watson. Remi is an incredibly talented kid, great size (200 pounds), a little bigger than the other two. He sees the field well and he’s a very cerebral football player. So, these guys have the ability.
“What we need to improve on is pass protection. A lot of times, it’s hard for young backs to grasp that, the importance there, and I preach all of the time that you have to learn to play without the football and you have a job description on every play, whether that’s to pick up the blitz, to catch the pass, or fake, whatever the case may be. You have to know your job description 100 percent.
“We made tremendous strides in pass protection in the spring, but it’s still an area we’re going to have to continue to work on, pay attention to, especially with Grooms and Butler not being as bulky as Watson. That’s an area where they’re going to have to be very fundamentally and technically sound and use their feet to help them maintain and sustain blocks.”
Barclay said that as August camp begins, Grooms is No. 1 at the position, followed on the depth chart by Butler and Watson. The new running backs coach, who joined the Herd from the William & Mary staff, said he had scouting reports on the players because he picked Brown’s head before taking the job.
Brown – who left Marshall for Wisconsin -- and Barclay were teammates in 2009 with the Atlanta Falcons.
Barclay knows Grooms and Butler have occasionally been in Coach Doc Holliday’s doghouse, and both have been banged up more than once, too – as Butler has been in recent months.
“Stew’s been hampered by a groin injury since the spring game; he hasn’t been 100 percent all summer,” Barclay said. “He’s made a lot of progress, and I’d say he’d probably be 80-85 percent right now -- and 85 percent of Stew is a pretty dang good football player.
“But as quick as he is and as good as he is changing direction, it bothers him going some ways, making certain cuts. It’s something we’ve got to stay on, and he’s getting treatment every day.
“The big thing is keeping them on the field. We need that. It’s making sure they understand the importance of staying pro-active mentally as well as physically … eating right, drinking the right things, making sure their bodies are prepared for games. And acting right. Just being a complete player and complete person. I’ve been preaching those things since I got here and think they understand it now.
“There’s an opportunity for them and I think they recognize that.”
Barclay said Grooms had made strides by adding “5-7 pounds of good muscle” to about 185 on his 5-foot-10 frame. Butler is 5-9, 182, while Grooms is 5-11, 200.
“Grooms is faster,” Barclay said when asked to compare and contrast Coach Doc Holliday’s backs. “I think in a straight line, he’d be one of fastest guys in this conference (USA) and, for sure, in this program. With the good 5-7 pounds, he looks stronger.
“If Stew has an advantage, it’s that he may be a little more instinctive. He sees things very well. He’s a savvy football player and he does some things you just can’t coach. He may be slightly quicker as far as changing direction, but Grooms is more straight-line fast.
“Right now, Remi is the best pass protector. He has good technique to go with his size to take on bigger linebackers, whatever the case may be. But I really thought Grooms made tremendous strides in the spring. He’s really taking coaching well and I think if he continues to grow, he can really be special in pass protection and not just with the ball in his hands.
“He’s stronger than you think he is, and he has to utilize his speed to close distances. He can’t just absorb (a pass rusher), he’s got to take it to the defender and I think he’s doing a good job with that.”
The trio of backs combined for no starts last season, as Taliaferro started the first 13 games and the Herd opened its Military Bowl victory with an empty backfield and a four-wideout set. For their careers, Watson has the most starts (four), followed by Grooms (three). Butler hasn’t made a start.
The junior trio combined for 208 carries last season – 13 fewer than Taliaferro.
Meanwhile, Barclay isn’t teaching the Herd running backs by himself. He’s using Taliaferro’s play last season as an instruction tool, too.
“One of the things I did when I got here was to pull out good plays from last year, and in particular good pass protection clips,” Barclay said. “Consequently, a lot of them were with Taliaferro, and you see why he was so successful last year. He was a very fundamentally sound player and played with a good base, a strong kid,
“It’s all about effort. He showed you don’t have to be 210 pounds to pick up a blitz. It’s about effort, desire and technique. I show these guys the clips, slow it down, see the technique, see his hips, his eyes, hands, and hopefully those are things they can transfer to the field.
“I think protection is the biggest area where we need improvement, that, and being patient in the running game. When you have big speed guys, playmaking guys, guys getting on the ends and the perimeters quickly, sometimes you have to slow their eyes down a bit, because it’s too much. We are working at honing those skills.
“It’s just being patient in the running game. Don’t have the fast eyes. Sometimes, you have to bring defenders to the offensive line, bring them to the blocks. Be patient with your eyes.”
Barclay also is looking for consistency in another area.
“Make sure they play every snap,” he said. “Take advantage of every snap. Backs have a tendency to take a play off if they’re not getting the ball. Whether or not it’s a play action pass, it’s important for us to get the good fake, so we can get linebackers drawn up into the line of scrimmage and create space down the field to get the ball off.
“Or, if you have a blitz pickup, pick it up. Don’t let your guy be a factor in 12’s face (Cato). Just being a complete football player is what I’m preaching to those guys day after day. Do you job, get it done.”
Meanwhile, Barclay said 2013 signees Byrd and Pittman – of Gibsonton, Fla., and Hampton, Va., respectively -- have impressed him in limited summer workouts.
“The thing about those kids is they’re great human beings,” Barclay said. “You won’t have to worry about them off the field. They are model citizens and a pleasure to coach – ‘yes sir, no sir’ kind of kids, raised well and they take coaching.
“Byrd is 6-0, about 200 pounds, maybe the second fastest straight-line in the room behind Grooms. He’s explosive, a 10.6 guy in the 100 meters in high school, so he’s got really unique ability. I think he has a chance – as long as he can grasp the playbook and the concepts … he has a chance to be a factor for us this year.
“Pittman is a guy who’s more of a hammer. He’s probably 5-9 and change, 5-10, a physical back, 205-210, a thicker kid -- a short yardage, goal-line back. It’s the same thing with him. If he can grasp the playbook and understand what’s going on, I think he can be a factor as well. I’m excited to see those guys work this fall.”
So, how does Barclay plan to employ the Herd running backs? Brown became a one-back guy (Taliaferro) with the returning trio doing spot relief in 2013. Will Barlclay be a one-, two-, or three-back guy?
“I think the way game is evolving, I think you have to at least be a two-back guy,” Barclay said. “Unless you have a 215-pound kid that can probably take a lot of hits and play a lot of downs, I think you’ve got to be a ‘by-committee’ guy.
“That’s been my experience at William & Mary. We had a kid about 220 (pounds), a lot of potential, good player (Mikal Abdul-Saboor), but he ended up getting hurt. I think I played him too many snaps, and toward the middle of the season I started splitting his carries with another kid.
“So, I think we’ll be by committee. I think we’ll be two backs and a situation guy, or short yardage, goal line, bigger body type guy. But right now, I’m looking at being one-two, one-two, one-two.”
It’s up to Grooms, Butler and Watson to sort that out. August camp starts in two weeks.