BOGACZYK: Heater Wants ‘B’ Coverage to Stand for ‘Blanket’
The Word on the Herd-Aug. 15, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It’s eight days down and six days to go in Marshall’s preseason football camp, and one thing hasn’t changed since spring practice.
Actually, it hasn’t changed from the 2013 and 2014 seasons that produced much-improved defense a 23-5 record and most recently a Conference USA title and final national ranking.
If the Herd is going to play defense the way it wants – with attacking pressure from the first two rows and man coverage out back – then the cornerbacks have to play well.
So says Chuck Heater, the veteran, third-year MU defensive coordinator and secondary coach. The difference this season is that star cornerback Darryl “Swagg” Roberts is a rookie on the New England Patriots’ roster rather than wearing No. 7 for Coach Doc Holliday’s team.
So, without Roberts’ freakish athleticism and All-Conference USA skills, erstwhile nickel and field corner Corey Tindal, a redshirt junior, moves to Roberts’ former boundary corner spot. Redshirt senior Keith Baxter started camp as the No. 1 field corner.
The backups – and they’ve mixed and matched with the ones through Saturday’s intrasquad controlled scrimmage, are sophomores Antavis Rowe and Rodney Allen and true freshman Chris Williams-Hall and Antonio “Speedy” Howard. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Rowe is the new No. 1 nickel, too, backed by Williams-Hall.
It’s a deeper group with more talent collectively than last season, but it has no Roberts.
Heater, pointing toward his 40th season as a collegiate assistant football coach, isn’t one to panic when new Herd quarterback Michael Birdsong zings a sideline completion over blanket coverage. Besides, it’s still three weeks until the 2015 season opener, when Purdue visits Edwards Stadium on Sept. 6.
“We’re pretty much in a situation where we’ve got to make plays, so I’m in some ways encouraged by the playmaking of the overall group,” Heater said after Saturday’s session. “What some people overlook is we have good receivers we’re going against – and they’re as good as the (opposing) guys we’ll see during the year – so we’ve got a mano-a-mano thing going on and we make our share of plays.
“What I like is we’re improving as technicians and that’s critical. A key to doing your job is become a good technician, and they know that. A couple guys have really shown the ability to make plays, and that’s important.”
Heater conceded Tindal did have a difficult first couple of days of camp, but the 5-10 junior bounced back the last several days, while – in particular – Williams-Hall and Howard played at times unlike the rookies they are.
“Corey has a lot of pride and he’s been pretty much an inside player, and now he’s moved outside, to the wide side of the field,” Heater said. “It’s different, so we haven’t got that quite on point yet. But Corey’s had a lot of reps against good receivers, and he’s gotten better as a technician.
“He’s a guy who needs to improve as a technician to go along with his ability. He’s not as long as Swagg (who is 6-1 with a vertical leap that might be the best among NFL rookie corners), so he can’t compensate with that. He’s got to be more consistent on technique to be able to get his job done. “Corey has a lot of pride and ability, and he’s played a lot of football for us. Really, I don’t worry about him at all.”
While Tindal’s 991 snaps last season lead all Herd defensive returnees – he’s made 26 career starts – the 6-0, 182-pound Williams-Hall and 5-10, 173-pound Howard are south Floridians still trying to figure things out, Heater said.
“Both have some football about them,” said Heater, making it clear the Herd is counting on the duo. “The other things they’re dealing with as freshmen -- not knowing whether it’s stuffed or pumped up -- all those things are there.
“But they’ve got some football in them, and it’s a really important component. When you’ve got football acumen – or whatever you want to call that – those guys have shown it. They just need to get more disciplined, in all respects, so they can become more consistent players.
“That’s the hit-and-miss deal you get with guys who are not quite ready yet. But it is important to see guys who seem like they’ve got some ability to make a play and have some toughness about them and they’ve shown that to me at times.”
Baxter and Allen began August camp 1-2 at field corner, respectively. The former is finally healthy after dealing with labrum tears and muscular injuries earlier in his career. The 5-11, 179-pound Allen moved to corner from receiver for the Herd.
“Baxter has gotten better,” Heater said. “He can cover and he needs to be more consistent and he knows that. He made a couple of nice plays today, did a really a nice job. Rodney Allen was a much better player in the spring and he’s come into camp and continued to improve, so he’s certainly in position to help us as well.”
Heater was dubious on whether Allen – or any other corner’s -- previous experience at wideout helps with the so-called mirror image.
“I think in theory that’s probably pretty good, but when you’re a freshman they just don’t know. They have no clue,” Heater said, smiling. “Well, maybe that’s a good theory. (Herd receivers coach) Mike Furrey did that.
“He was a receiver and was asked to play safety (in 2009 by the Cleveland Browns) and was a really outstanding safety. But that’s Mike Furrey. These guys aren’t Mike Furrey. I’m not sure those young guys are quite processing all that. That sounds pretty good, but I don’t think we’re there yet with those guys.”
So, halfway through Herd camp – with a break for Fan Day on Sunday -- what kind of grade would the cornerbacks’ demanding teacher give his group?
“I’d say a B,” Heater opined. “They’re B guys right now. They’re hanging in there pretty good, competing, fighting – and we’ve got good receivers. We’re winning some, losing some.
“We’ve got to win more than we lose, certainly, but I challenged them to become better at technique this past week and they really were, so that helped them.
“They’re making progress, but they’ve got to be big for us. They’ve got to be the guys for us.”
And as the season approaches, Heater will be looking for some “A” games.