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Herd Ground Game Overrun with Options

Marshall's Travon Van

Aug. 15, 2012



HUNTINGTON - Run, rabbit ... Yes, it might seem that at running back, Marshall's preseason camp lives up to the title of the 1960s John Updike novel.

Then, maybe things are more right from the mouth of that football coach-turned-TV analyst, Lee Corso:

"Not so fast, my friend."

It depends on your perspective, but as Marshall has 2 1/2 weeks until its season opener Sept. 1 at West Virginia, the running back spot seems to be the most unsettled - as well as the most impressive - part of Coach Doc Holliday's third team.

It truly is a Herd, and it's thundering, slashing, dashing, spinning ...

There are seven - count `em - candidates in Steward Butler, Kevin Grooms, Tron Martinez, Essray Taliaferro, Travon Van, Martin Ward and Remi Watson ... and don't read anything into that order, because it's alphabetical only.

All except Ward, the biggest at 221 pounds, run the 40 in 4.5 seconds or faster. Van and Martinez, the real incumbents from 2011, have been out of drills as they recover from surgeries ... but don't count them out at all.

Watching practice day-after-day after four decades pounding a keyboard, I sat at one recent session and wondered whether I had forgotten some long ago team I'd seen or covered with this kind of depth at RB.

I couldn't recall one.



Holliday, who has been much closer to the game than me although not around quite as long, said Tuesday he's never had a team with this much running back talent, not at West Virginia, or NC State, or Florida (with a national championship squad included), or WVU again.

The guy standing around at practice with a smile on his face - along with a furrowed brow - is Herd running backs coach JaJuan Seider. He's got to figure this out.

You can't play seven backs ... and that doesn't even count fullback Zach Wellman, and a couple of part-time FBs borrowed from the backup linebacker corps, Cortez Carter and Devon Johnson.

"All those running backs have been competing, and they're competing for playing time," Holliday said after Tuesday afternoon's workout. "Bottom line, when it comes down to it, you can't get six guys ready to play. You try to get six of `em ready, you can't get anybody ready.

"So, there's going to come a time we've got to cut back on the reps that certain guys get. Right now, they're fighting for reps at every opportunity."

Holliday said he thought you could get four backs "ready to play ... four to five somewhat ready to go, and a couple ready to roll and go play."

Ward will play on all special teams and is one of the team's top kick return men. He also will get the ball in the backfield in short-yardage situations, led by one of those fullbacks in the Herd's "21" set.

Martinez is on the practice sidelines as he recovers from two knee arthroscopies. Van is limited in what he does after labrum surgery on a hip.

And speaking of non-contact, that what it seems the offense is running sometimes when Butler gets the ball and jaunts, cuts and runs through an air-grasping, very speedy defense untouched.

Don't read a lot into that, either, Seider said.

"The biggest thing is we've got more than we can play," the Marshall running backs coach said. "To me, by this time next week, we've got to have four guys who can get to separate themselves. It's tough right now. I know a couple guys, but I can't tell you a definite four yet."

Seider confirmed that the red no-contact jersey on Van is simply precautionary as he comes back after the hip surgery. Van has participated in most drills, and in all 7-on-7s, and he's being held back "because we don't want 7 to get hit yet," Seider said.

Asked who would start at running back if the West Virginia game were today, Seider said, "People can talk anything they want, but it's 7 (Van), if he's healthy. He's the guy, no question.

"It's 7 or 2 (Martinez), and I think 7 is further along than 2 right now. 2 is coming back; 7 is really ready to go right now. Travon is taking every rep he needs to take.

"The injuries don't put them behind others at all. Tron is a two-year starter. If Tron is ready to go right now (which he isn't), he's going to play."

Those non-contact situations for the two veterans only complicate matters in making a decision.

"We're talking about four and it's not because we don't have four that are good enough, obviously," Seider said. "It's only about four that can't separate themselves from the pack. And yet you expect that when you have young kids like this. They're hungry to prove something. They're not going to go away."

No question, the second Herd scrimmage this Saturday at 10:45 a.m. could be a dealmaker - or deal-breaker -- for some of these rushers. In last week's scrimmage, Watson played very well. And he just wasn't thought by most Herdheads to just be the second-best MU back from Lakeland, Fla. - behind Butler. Redshirt freshman Watson was figured about sixth on the depth chart by most.

"Well, I never felt that way," Seider said after Watson got some reps with the ones Tuesday. "I always thought Remi had the talent to be a starter here, and I still do. I think he can be as good as anybody here. Everybody else wrote him off because they're all caught up in the flash and this and that. He's a good football player, and he could be the best one we've got in this group.

"They write Taliaferro off, well, he's having a really great camp so far. Martin (Ward), if he isn't the guy, we put him in the I-formation and let him run downhill as the big back. So, there are different ways we're going to come up with schemes to get these kids onto the field.

"We're trying to create depth (behind Wellman at fullback) with Cortez and Devon. Cortez was a fullback in high school (Liberty, in Bealton, Va.) and he's a natural, and was recruited by UConn as a fullback, so he understands the position.

"What those guys do (at linebacker) is cause a collision anyway. That's natural for them; they love doing that. And when we start game-planning for short yardage, we want to have more than one ample body, and need more than one."

Butler's play has wowed practice viewers, but while Seider doesn't dismiss what he and others see, he said there is more to consider.

"You're going to make plays when you're that fast," Seider said of the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Butler. "There are a lot of guys in our room that are special. "You can get caught up in that stuff, but it's more than just one play. Can you do it another play, another play, another play?

"I'm not going to give these guys that much credit. They haven't earned anything yet. And the first scrimmage, I didn't see too many of those (wow!) plays. I saw a lot of 35 (Watson) plays, so let's temper things. Let them go work for something first."

They are doing that. Holliday sees it.

"It's just great to watch them compete, because they sure are," the Herd coach said.

Seider not only has to decide who, but when. He has an answer for the second problem.

"I think the middle of next week, when we start getting into (game planning for) West Virginia, we've got to know," Seider said. "Right now, we're still in the middle of camp and we need everybody competing. We need fresh legs and you can't put too much on these kids too early.

"Really, the four you need is going to be three from these guys (in full practice mode) because you get 7 (Van) back. That's why we keep coaching everybody.

"No. 7 (Van) is 1. If he can go, he's 1. I can't give you anybody else yet because they still have to work for it. They're all right there on 7's heels, put it that way. And 2 is there when he's back, too."

Yeah, and in this case, counting to four won't be easy.