July 26, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – The first three games of Marshall’s 2013 football season are scheduled at night.
So, if Chuck Heater’s recent words to me can be taken literally, the new Thundering Herd defensive coordinator should learn about his unit in those home games against Miami (Ohio) and Gardner Webb, and at Ohio.
What’s veteran Heater’s highest-ranked unknown entering his 38th season as a Division I assistant coach?
“It’s just when the lights go on, what’s going to happen,” Heater said in his Shewey Building office this week. “Will they be able to play through adversity, be able to handle success, failure? Playing a series on a football field is kind of like a heavyweight fight.
“You get hit, you hit back, and you’ve got be able to deal with the bad plays and get past those plays and make some good plays. And I don’t know the ‘game psyche’ of these guys. They’ve done a great job so far of putting themselves in position to go out perform significantly better than they did a year ago, but you don’t know about injuries – like happened a year ago – and that can tilt it significantly.
“You start out thinking you have this and that, and all of it can suddenly change on you, like last year, when they didn’t have any corners. You can’t control things. When the lights come on, it’s go make plays … it’s about playing confidently, dealing with adversity, saying together, fighting through it, all that psyche they have to have.
“And you’ve got to believe the psyche is a little bit fractured here from a year ago, because it happened, for whatever reason it happened. So, you don’t know. You’ve got to trust that they’ll come out punching when it gets hard, because it will get hard, but these are things I don’t know until I see it.”
Heater, 60, is on his 12th stop as a major college assistant coach since 1976, including stays at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida. He is the highest-paid ($200,000) assistant coach in Herd history.
And if he can get one of the nation’s most-giving defenses in 2012 turned around in a renovated Conference USA, Marshall fans will figure Heater is worth every penny.
After all, those fans watched a superb offense undermined by a defense that ranked in the bottom 30 in the nation in scoring, total, rushing and passing defense, and in preventing third-down conversions.
Other reasons the Herd “D” figures to grade much higher than that letter?
There are more 15-20 names who figures to get significant time on the field who weren’t available last season (or were limited) because of injury or academics, or they were redshirting or playing in junior college, prep school or high school.
Up front, add James Rouse, Arnold Blackmon, Josh Brown, Gary Thompson, Ken Smith.
At linebacker, there are Stefan Houston, Kent Turene, Evan McKelvey, Raheem Waiters and you can even count a spring practice “find” in recast senior Derek Mitchell.
In the secondary, there are Freshman All-America D.J. Hunter (moving back from linebacker to his natural position), and the addition of Darryl “Swag” Roberts, A.J. Leggett, a healthy Keith Baxter, Shawn Samuels, Corey Tindal and 2013 recruits Michael Johnson and Tiquan Lang.
“Maybe somebody steps up in camp, too,” the Herd coordinator said.
Heater was pleased with his on-field introduction to his defense and the players’ progression during spring practice. He has depth (especially up front) and versatility. He knows the Herd needs to find a pass rush.
So, what concerns him most as the Herd begins preseason camp on Aug. 5?
Heater likes the Herd front because of its depth, and the fact three starters return in ends Jeremiah Taylor and Alex Bazzie and tackle Brandon Sparrow. And besides the aforementioned additions, returnees Steve Dillon and Jarquez Samuel will play inside, where a healthy Rouse could figure prominently.
Heater said backup end Ra’Shawde Meyers made big steps during spring ball. “He’s a starter as far as I’m concerned,” Heater said. “He’s a third starter at end; he’ll flip both sides.”
“The line is a place you need to rotate players with the type of offenses you go against today,” the Herd coordinator said. “We seem to have a lot of bodies, but Thompson, Josh Brown, Blackmon have never played a down (here), not a down. Rouse has been hurt, Ken Smith has been hurt, too.
“They look OK in gym shorts, but it’s been just gym class (conditioning) until now. Football is very detailed, very specific, and some guys put the pads on and some look like they know what they’re doing and some guys, they struggle.
“So, hopefully those guys will know what they’re doing. But on paper, we seem to have the depth that’s necessary for us to rotate players in and out of there. You can’t ask guys to play 80-90 plays. If you do, they get tired and then they miss (making) plays and bad things happen.”
At linebacker, Heater talks mostly about Houston at weakside, backed by McKelvey, and a combination of Jermaine Holmes and Billy Mitchell in the middle, with Derek Mitchell and Waiters in the strongside berth.
Turene could figure prominently before long, too, if he can bounce back from a high ankle sprain and surgery that cost him most of his first spring practice.
In the secondary, Heater said “at least” five corners will play, in Roberts, Monterius Lovett, Derrick Thomas, Baxter and Tindal, who emerged as the top nickel back in spring. True freshmen Johnson and Lang could get an early taste of playing time, too.
The safeties are Hunter and Samuels at strong, with junior college transfer Letman and redshirt freshman Leggett at free safety. “Letman was (the starter) coming out of spring but A.J. was right there,” Heater said.
Heater hopes to play as many as 25-30 players on defense in a regular way.
“We plan on playing a lot of guys,” he said. “The thing is, there are a lot of moving pieces, but because of Doc’s recruiting, we’ve got a lot of new parts. What’s happened here is we’ve got a group of guys coming back who have played some football, the Bazzies, JTs (Taylor), Hunter, and they need to play better.
“We’ve got some guys who have been injured who maybe didn’t play or played on a little a year ago – Rouse, Swag, McKelvey, Waiters, Baxter, Leggett. That’s like six guys that we think are ‘guys.’ Then you’ve got new faces, like Tindal, Houston, Turene, Josh Brown, Thompson, Blackmon.
“All that jumbles a bunch of whatever that has to get sorted out, but the bottom line is: How do you get better? How do you go from as bad as they were, for all of the reasons we’ve talked about, how do you get better? You do it by recruiting players, by getting players back who were injured.
“We’ve got players who can potentially make you better, but that doesn’t do it. You just can’t put too much stock in guys who haven’t lined up yet, as is the case with a Brown, a Thompson, a Letman. If your recruiting is good and right, then it figures at some point they’ve got to play. Someone’s got to play.”
Back seven years ago, when Heater was a Florida assistant with Holliday, Gators Coach Urban Meyer, said of Heater: “He's one of the best teachers. I used to just sit in his meetings and watch him coach.”
This preseason and early in the regular season, Heater will be as much a pupil, learning what he has to mold.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have no history,” Heater said. “There’s a saying, it’s hard to be a leader if you’re not a player … Talking isn’t what you respect; you respect guys who do it. I want guys who will do it. Jeremiah has done that, so players respect him, and I’m good with all that, but I’m more concerned about a guy being a good player, working with the other guys out there, being a player you can trust.
“Who can you really trust? Every time you put a guy on the field you can’t trust, you’re one step closer to failing. You put too many guys on the field you can’t trust, you’re going to ultimately fail. They’ve got to trust one another, and be trusted.
“That’s the problem in football sometimes. Injuries can put you in a situation you have to put a guy on the field who isn’t talented enough or trustworthy enough, whatever, and he fails … You put 11 guys on the field who can do the job, you’ve got a pretty good chance of making plays. Injuries are the one thing you can’t control.
“I was certainly encouraged by what I saw in the spring, but there’s still a lot I don’t know. We’ve got to find out.”