BOGACZYK: Letman Often Overlooked, Except Where It Counts
The Word on the Herd-Aug. 17, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The resurgence of Marshall football in the last two seasons is well-chronicled. The Herd won 23 games, grabbed a Conference USA championship and two bowl wins, found its way back into the national rankings and last season had a Conference USA-record 10 all-league first team picks.
On those teams, there has been one really unheralded player, someone who seems to be consistently overlooked outside the football hub in the Shewey Building.
He’s been a two-year starter and delivered more than consistency. And he’s back again, hoping to help the Herd to another season of double-digit wins.
“Getting here, first, was just a dream-come-true … a blessing, just getting here,” said Taj Letman, Marshall’s better-than-reliable boundary safety. “And the teams we’ve had since I first got here, it’s head- over heels, man, with championships … and more to come in future for Marshall.”
Letman came to the Herd after one season at Holmes Community College in rural Goodman, Miss. (population 1,336). Most of his other offers had melted away since he didn’t play a second junior college season due to injury.
“It was the first day of preseason practice,” Letman said of the 2012 injury. “I stood up a running back on a bubble screen. I felt something and thought I just broke my finger. I looked down and it was like my (right ring) finger wasn’t there. Torn tendon … surgery. They went in and put an anchor in it. If I didn’t have the surgery, I could have lost my finger.”
Georgia, Kentucky, Baylor, Nebraska and Purdue were recruiting Letman before the injury. Ohio State showed a bit of interest. Arizona State tried to get in late. FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette were there, too.
The Herd, Letman said, was “there early and late.” Marshall had a large need, because Coach Doc Holliday’s program was losing starting safeties Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha, who had come to Marshall from Boston College for a graduate transfer season.
Former Marshall assistant Lytrel Pollard (now at Southern Miss) put the press on Letman.
“When I got hurt, Coach Pollard said, ‘We aren’t leaving you,’” Letman recalled. “They really cared about me here. I made the right decision.”
When Holliday brought in Chuck Heater as the new defensive coordinator in February 2013, the veteran aide wasn’t sure what the Herd had, other than three years of eligibility remaining for the rangy Letman, who hails from Elberton, Ga.
What Heater has gotten is consistency, and Letman’s contribution is more crucial this season with the loss of boundary corner Darryl “Swagg” Roberts, a rookie with the New England Patriots.
“He’s been our most consistent guy (in the secondary),” Heater said. “Last season, noticeably, with injuries (fellow safeties) AJ Leggett and Tiquan Lang were dealing with, Taj was a guy who played every play and played very well.”
In the final three games of the season – a loss to Western Kentucky, the C-USA title win over Louisiana Tech and Boca Raton Bowl victory over Northern Illinois – Letman produced 36 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups. He had a career-high 15 hits against WKU and a team-leading nine solos and 11 total tackles in the bowl win.
“He’s a self-made guy,” Heater said. “He came here and went to work in things he had to improve on – which was significant – and he’s done a great job developing as a player, and he’s a great kid. Football is important to him and he’s coachable, plus he’s gotten better. He’s been a key for us.”
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Letman is the Herd’s top returning tackler from 2014. He ranked behind then-senior linebackers Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes, with 94 stops. He also shared the Herd interception lead with four (with Leggett) and broke up another four passes. His 94 tackles were an improvement from 50 the previous season.
Letman, who gained his undergraduate degree in management last December and is in the MBA program, knows life in the secondary will be different without Roberts patrolling half the field as he did last season.
“It’s going good so far,” Letman said after a recent camp practice. “We’re bringing the young guys and new guys along, and slowly but surely and they’re picking it up. We still need to see how they do with live bullets flying around.
“We’ve just got the same mentality (as last year) but we’ve put in so much more time into our craft this summer. We want to want to put together our best season. Without Swagg, I don’t want to say there’s more pressure. I’d say I’ve got more responsibility. We can’t look to Swagg. Now, it’s on me to make the play – all of us – when it’s time. We’ve got some veteran guys back there – AJ, Corey Tindal, Keith Baxter – to make plays.”
Among returning Herd players on defense, Letman’s 834 snaps in 2014 ranked second only to Tindal’s 991 at corner and nickel. Tindal has started 27 of his 28 Marshall games, too, after he saw an opening upon his arrival, and seized it.
“He was pretty highly touted and then when I had Taj the first couple of days, it was, ‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ you know?” Heater said. “He didn’t move great; he didn’t look like he could play. But to his credit, he went to work every day, brought his lunch pail, made himself into a good player. He covers well; he tackles well. He does a nice job. He’s dependable.”
Letman said his two years at Marshall have “flown by … I joked around a lot about how I didn’t know why Swagg was smiling every morning (last year), but now I know why. It’s because every time you do something, it’s the last time, really.”
So, what is the senior safety’s role this season?
“It’s just me taking on that senior role of responsibility; it’s more on my plate this year,” Letman said. “Last year, it was more on Swagg. Well, there’s no superhero now. There’s more on my plate. I’ve got to make the play. I can’t ‘half’ a play. I’ve got to be full speed all of the time. All the young guys look up to me now.”
So, he’s made an impact and he has a degree. What more does Heater want from Letman?
“Well, he’s got to catch the ball when they throw it to you,” the Herd defensive coordinator said. “That’s a problem we all have in the back end. We just don’t catch balls as well as we should.
“But Taj, he’s a pretty good cover guy, tackles well. He’s solid. Now, if he catches the ball when they throw it to him, it will get us off the field.”