Aug. 9, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Because he’s “been there,” Thomas Brown is not going to do that.
Brown, Marshall’s first-year running backs coach, certainly understands he has a plethora of talent in sophomores Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler, Remi Watson and senior Essray Taliaferro.
That doesn’t mean they’re all going to get the ball.
He knows that – thanks primarily to a passing game that ranked first nationally last season with 365 yards per game – that those backs, despite their talent and potential were somewhat overlooked in 2012.
However, Marshall ran for 169.2 yards per game last season. While that ranked 55th among 124 FBS programs, it also was a Herd improvement from 120.1 per game, and No. 96 in 2011.
There’s also this nugget: the pass-happy Herd’s 169.1 yards per game was the program’s second-best ground year since MU returned to major college ball in 1997. The 2003 Bob Pruett-coached club, led by Earl Charles’ 1,039 yards and 729 from Butchie Wallace, averaged 196.3.
Watson led in starts, with four, while Grooms and Travon Van had three starts. Taliaferro started the finale at East Carolina. Butler never got a start.
However, you can take an eraser to that.
Grooms may have been the Conference USA Freshman of the Year and led MU with 737 rushing yards, but it’s a new season, with a new coach. And the thinning of the crowd figures to start in earnest today when Coach Doc Holliday’s team dons full pads for the first time, then hold its first preseason scrimmage Saturday.
“What we have in our group is -- we’re very talented,” said Brown, who starred as a running back at Georgia (2,646 yards from 2004-07) before heading to the NFL. “The first thing I wanted to emphasize when I got here was building a team-first mentality and doing whatever we needed to help us win.
“I believe in all our guys, and they’ve been blessed with different God-given abilities, and we’re going to use those whether it be on offense or special teams, or both, to help this team win.
“The second thing is competition. We have it. Make sure we come out every single day -- nothing’s going to be given to you. I think what we did last year was great. I wasn’t here to be a part of that, but it’s a brand new year.
“It’s all about competition. I told these guys that from Day 1. You’ve got to come out and consistently prove what you deserve.”
Brown, an Atlanta native, was running backs coach at Chattanooga last season, then moved to Georgia State this offseason briefly before joining Holliday’s staff. He’s been impressed by his foursome, but that won’t be the number when the Herd opens the season Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio) at Edwards Stadium.
He’s using his own collegiate experience as a guide. In his years under Coach Mark Richt with the Bulldogs, the backfield was crowded.
“I know they kind of had a running back-by-committee system here last year at some point, but my philosophy is my top two guys are going to play the most,” Brown said after a Thursday practice. “I think it’s difficult to roll three, four guys at a time and I’ve shared this with them as well.
“I played in a system where it was running back-by-committee and I think it’s difficult to get into a rhythm as a back if you’re going to start the game, then not get back on the field until almost halftime because you’re playing four different backs.
“We played with some talented guys (at Georgia), and unless we had injuries and only played two, we tried to roll all of them. But my philosophy is if you want to play, you have to earn that spot to play.
“I’m not going to give the fourth-team guy the same amount of reps and opportunity in the game as the first-team guy. He’s proven he deserves to be in that spot, so let him roll.”
Brown called last season’s ground work – when the Herd’s pass/run play ratio was 56/44 percent, “very productive.” He also likes the versatility his group can provide.
“The different skill sets stand out, obviously” Brown said. “Kevin and Stew have great straight-line speed, and those guys in open space are very hard to stop. I’m just trying to help them control their bodies more and help maximize their overall potential.
“Remi and Tally are bigger body-type guys and I’m trying to help them use those gifts to be more physical, learn how to run behind their pads and be more productive between the tackles and in space to break those tackles, and punish the defense.
“But the biggest thing, as I said before, is coming together as a group, as a team, every single day.”
There’s another number from last season that shows the running game’s progression with the so-called “baby backs.”
After Van was moved to defense, the Herd’s average rushing yards per game grew. In C-USA play (eight games), it was 194.9 yards.
Marshall hasn’t averaged 200 or more yards per game on the ground since its final Division I-AA season, the 15-0 championship club in 1996 that included receiving great Randy Moss, but also rushed for 226.3 yards per game. Erik Thomas and Doug Chapman each had more than 1,200 yards on the ground.
“The overall goal for me is to be a balanced offense,” Brown said when asked if there are yardage goals in his mind. “And what that means to me is being able to run the ball when we want to run and pass when we want to pass … Whatever it takes for us to win. Throw it 40 times, OK. Run it 40 times, OK. Whatever it takes.”
So, has Brown decided on anybody for his top two yet? What do you think?
“I’m not going to announce that yet. It’s still early,” he said. “We’re not in pads (until today), haven’t had a scrimmage yet. These guys are doing some really good things, but we still have a long way to go. I’m happy with the first few days, but we’ll see shortly.”
Brown said he knew of the Herd’s running back talent and depth before he moved to Huntington. He’s not surprised at his stable of horses, but he said they’ll eventually help him make the decision he has to make.
“It’s great to be around talented guys; it makes your job easier as a coach,” Brown said, smiling. “I had an opportunity last year at Chattanooga to see some film on those guys. We were kind of trying to steal a run play from here and put it in over there but we didn’t have these type of guys running the ball in our offense.
“There have been some plays (in the spring) from each and every one of them that have opened my eyes and had me saying, ‘Gee, these guys are really special.’ But I think the key for everyone is being consistent and putting it together on back-to-back days.
“Like I said, we have a long way to go.”