BOGACZYK: Herd's Heater Seeks Same Success with New Faces
The Word on the Herd-July 27, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Chuck Heater obviously has a handle on what it takes defensively to help Marshall win football games.
With preseason camp opening in 12 days, the Thundering Herd defensive coordinator's question entering the 2015 season is whether many new faces turn in the same kind of performance their predecessors did.
Marshall lost six starters on defense, half of those in the front four. Familiar names like Roberts, Rouse, Hewitt, Myers and Holmes were multiyear starters. Another player who emerged in 2014, defensive end Arnold Blackmon, was a senior in the Herd's 13-1 Conference USA championship season.
The cupboard is anything but bare, however.
Marshall's defensive depth chart includes players who have made 153 career starts, a list led by the 28 for strongside linebacker D.J. Hunter. Boundary safety Taj Letman is back for a third season as a starter, with 27. Junior cornerback Corey Tindal has 26 starts under his belt.
Meanwhile, weakside linebacker Evan McKelvey and corner Keith Baxter are primed for their senior seasons after overcoming multiple injuries and surgeries that have limited their playing time, but not their capabilities.
Up front, Herd Coach Doc Holliday and his staff say nose Jarquez Samuel -- an All-C-USA Preseason pick -- is primed for stardom. And Heater raves about the potential depth in a front four that via personnel rotation, could be "a front 10."
"I think the key to the success we've had here the last two years is we've had some individual guys who have decided they were going to become good football players," Heater said of Herd teams that were a combined 23-5 with two bowl wins. "Each year we've had a significant number -- six to eight guys -- who had had a history of inconsistency -- you haven't been able to trust `em -- and our coaches have challenged those guys and they've made that jump.
"That's the challenge once again this time, that guys that have that ability to play, can they move the needle? Can they become a guy who is more consistent, so we can trust them to go out and play high-level football?
"That's the key in the past, and we're right back there again ... and that's the art of coaching, challenging guys, pushing the right buttons help them mature into good football players. That's a good program, programs that develop players, and we do. We're developmental, by definition."
Heater used junior end Joe Massaquoi and senior end Armonze Daniel as examples. They've played, but now the pressure for them to produce is increased with Blackmon and Ra'shawde Myers gone. "Massaquoi has improved a lot, and he needs to continue to improve as he matures," the Herd defensive coordinator said. "Armonze Daniel was not a good football player. He has made himself into a good football player. He has done that.
"We challenged him, told him what our true evaluation was of him -- which was different from his viewpoint -- but to his credit he went to work, and did it every day. He's truly a product of focus and development."
Heater cited Ricardo "Rico" Williams, a senior transfer from Miami and backup defensive tackle, as a player that he and Herd defensive line coaches J.C. Price and Sean Cronin have come to appreciate. "Rico ... he's a guy who has done a nice job, come a long way, come on as strong as anybody, has truly caught into the concept, `Hey, it's my last year; I've got to go,'" Heater said. "He's a totally different guy, a shining example of anybody we have who has accepted the challenge.
"Kids make those decisions. You can push them, but it's up to them to make the decision to grind every day, work every day, approach it with the right amount of energy and kind of attitude, and it's not easy. Some guys, you're not sure they can handle it. Rico, he's a transfer, a senior now, he kind of gets it."
Heater said the Herd's defensive front offers plenty of depth, with Massaquoi, Daniel, Gary Thompson and UCF transfer Blake Keller at ends, and Samuel, Steve Dillon, Williams, Tomell One and newcomers Malik Thompson and Jason Smith at tackle.
"Inside up front, Jarquez and Dillon have done a good job every year at getting better, taking a step every year," Heater said. "And when you lose a player like (tackle) James Rouse, then you've got a critical need, so hopefully those guys will take another step, like they have. All six of those tackles can play.
"D.J. Hunter continues to improve at linebacker. Letman continues to prove as a player. AJ Leggett, we need him to have a good year. He's a guy that's been inconsistent; he's played well at times, but most of what happened is due to injuries. We need him to play with the `mentalness' of playing when you're not perfect and feel 100 percent -- and that's hard."
The question of who plays the most between Hunter and McKelvey is one of those without an answer as August camp looms. Heater said Maryland transfer Shawn Petty and sophomore Raheim Huskey are battling for the starting middle linebacker spot.
"Petty sat out last season here and showed us something this spring," Heater said. "Huskey comes off the bench when we need him in the (C-USA) championship game (last December) and plays a marvelous game. But can he go out there and do that 12, 13 times? You don't know.
"We're waiting to see on some linebackers, whether it's a Shawn Petty, whether it's a (junior college recruit Devontre'a) Tyler or (freshman) Frankie Hernandez, backing up McKelvey. We haven't really seen those guys, so we're hoping."
All of that said, Heater said the roots of the Herd's defensive success are in the back line -- in particular at cornerback. In Heater's two seasons as Marshall's coordinator, the Herd defense has ranked fifth nationally in tackles for loss, with 107 (for minus-789 yards).
Turns out that play up front starts out back -- the secondary, where Heater is the position coach.
"Those cover guys -- the way we play -- the corners have to play, and we lost a really outstanding player in `Swagg' (boundary corner Darryl Roberts, a rookie with the New England Patriots)," Heater said. "A lot of what we were able to do -- and it put more pressure on him, trusting him to be able to handle it the way he did -- and that was a big deal for us.
"If our corners cover well, we can do much more of what we want to do. Tindal is playing Roberts' old spot. We need Baxter to play well on the other side, too. (Antavis) Rowe might be the best athlete we have. He's going to play nickel and corner. Rodney Allen, we liked him at corner in the spring. Chris Williams-Hall is there, too."
Heater said the Herd defense won't look much different, except the players' jersey numbers on the field. After all, the guy calling the plays is the same, a guy entering his 40th season as a college assistant coach.
"There are a couple of different things we're evaluating, changes, but I can't talk about them," Heater said. "You're always looking. If you're one away (a loss in a 13-1 year), you're always looking for things that can complement what you did.
"We're looking for things that will help us and complement us. It's scheme-driven ... They have a book on you. They should have a bank on us now. We've been here. A good coach will study the play-caller, try to understand what the thinking is when, how they attack and when. We critique that all the time.
"I know it's said we all have the answers on Sunday (after watching tape of Saturday's game). As a coach, the idea is to be really good on Tuesday and Wednesday -- so you can ask all the questions and solve all the problems -- so that on Saturday they've been held to a minimum and you can look up on Sunday and you did this, and this and this.
"You hope to have a body of knowledge and wisdom and anticipate as much as you can and go out there on Saturday and do what we've done for the most part."