Aug. 22, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The mantra "Respect your elders" is in force on the 2014 Marshall football team.
For example, there's star defensive tackle James Rouse, who is in his sixth season with the Herd after missing nearly two years with multiple injuries and surgeries.
Rouse is held out of a good number of practice reps for two reasons. The coaches know what he can do--and that's impressive -- and they want him a maximum efficiency during the season ... not that he's always thrilled with situation.
"Oh, yeah, there are plenty of times I try to sneak out there and jump in and do something," Rouse said of his practice breaks. "Then Coach tells me to get out and not do it just because they're trying to rest me. But really, I always want to compete and do everything like my teammates."
As for those teammates who respectfully voted Rouse the Herd MVP in a 2013 season that brought a 10-4 record and Military Bowl victory, they have given the veteran defensive lineman a nickname.
"They call me `Unc' (short for uncle) because they say I'm old," Rouse said, smiling.
Well, he'll be grinning even more when he reads this. Rouse is only the ninth-oldest player among Coach Doc Holliday's Herd. Redshirt junior linebacker D.J. Hunter, who turns 24 on Monday, is the oldest scholarship student-athlete in any Herd sport. He's almost eight months older than Rouse, who was born April 13, 1991.
And anyway, as it is said, age is just a number. It's all about how you feel.
As the Herd points toward an Aug. 30 season opener at Miami (Ohio), the 6-foot-5, 271-pound Rouse feels kind of like the 18-year-old who was a 195-pound end from Harrisonburg, Va., when he reported to the program in the summer of 2009.
"I feel like this is the best my body has felt probably since I've been here," he said. "I'm injury-free. No injuries, nothing hurting or aching me. So, it's good to be able to focus on football."
The August camp that finishes with Saturday's closed intrasquad scrimmage is Rouse's fifth at Marshall. He missed camp in 2012, during a time when the `block M' on his helmet should have been for "Medical."
After redshirting in 2009, rouse made seven starts at defensive end in 2010 and '11 before suffering a back injury in a Week 3 loss at Ohio to end his sophomore season. He returned for spring practice in 2012, but a couple weeks into that he tore his left Achilles.
He tried to come back during the 2012 season, but at midseason, after rehabbing the repaired Achilles, he needed back surgery to repair a herniated disc from his 2011 back injury. Finally, Rouse made it all the way back a year ago in August camp ... and had the kind of season that made him the 2014 Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year pick by league coaches.
"I think you, as a player, adjust to stuff," Rouse said when asked to compare the last August camp of his college career to his previous four. "When I first got here, everything seemed hard because I was new to the college football experience.
"I think after a while -- at least I found this myself -- you get into the routine of doing things and you know what to expect on a given day, how practice will be set up. I think that helps a lot. For me personally, it's been a great setup this year and I think we've gotten after it a lot, done some team stuff and this last week we got into some team versus scout stuff, getting into Miami of Ohio a bit."
Rouse is the only player left in the program from the December 2009 day when Holliday was hired. It's been a long haul for him, but if preseason prognostications about the Herd turn out accurate, it will be a special last act.
In 2013, he was the dominant player on a defense that made a 20.2-point improvement in scoring defense (from 43.1 to 22.9), the best points-per-game improvement in major college football in 15 seasons. The Herd climbed from No. 123 to No. 31 in scoring defense.
The 2014 defense could be better than that, Rouse said, and it has 17 of the top 21 tacklers from last season returning. One of defensive coordinator Chuck Heater's stated wishes is an improvement of at least four points per game in scoring defense, which he figures could make the Herd a top-10 team in that statistic.
"We have more depth than we had last year, so we have a chance to build off what we did last year, go further than that," Rouse said when asked about the Herd defense's goals. "I think we've got to get off the field more, get off the field on third down. That's something we didn't do a good job of last year, allowed too many long drives, and left plays on the field."
Still, Marshall ranked 17th in third-down defense. Opponents only converted 33.6 percent of third-down opportunities.
"Yeah," Rouse said, "but there were some plays that could have been made in key situations that we didn't make. If we can work on those and eliminate those, that's a goal."
Last season, when Rouse led the Herd with six sacks and 14 tackles for losses, opponents had really only seen him on film as the year developed. He'd either been an end who was 40 pounds lighter or absent for two years - thus, an extra season of NCAA eligibility.
Now, he's a marked man of sorts, right? He doesn't view it quite that way.
"I think this year, it's going to be more relaxed for me," said Rouse, who has an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and is working on his masters' in adult and technical education. "Last year, there was stress after just not being able to play for a long time and having to get back into the scheme of things and the flow of things.
"Now, I understand the game better than I did last year and I've been able to work at my game more and better than I did last year. I'm just more comfortable at my position when I play."
Rouse mentors the younger linemen and he's ready to play his regular 3-technique tackle spot or slide to end if asked. He's regarded as one of the Herd team leaders. And if Marshall is to climb the heights to a first C-USA title and perhaps beyond to a major bowl bid, Rouse will be a fulcrum on defense.
"The difference in Rouse right now as a player is he's just fundamentally better," said J.C. Price, the Herd's defensive tackles coach. "He trusts his body more. He's turned it loose, playing harder and more fundamentally sound than he did last year. He's really improved his hand technique in the offseason. That will help him be more productive.
"Expectations? The expectations are just to be a great leader and be himself. Don't try to do too much because of some else's expectations. Play every down as hard as he can. Don't try to make every play, but make the ones he is supposed to make."
Price said Rouse has been enhanced mentally and physically by his work in the Pruett Training Center with Scott Sinclair, MU's strength and conditioning chief.
"I don't know if `relaxed' is the word," Price said when asked about Rouse's mindset. "I think he's comfortable in his own skin. I think he now believes - after making it through a whole season relatively injury free, not missing a game, knock on wood - that he trusts his body.
"He feels his body is not going to let him down, where in the past he kind of was always waiting for that shoe to drop (on an injury). The work he's put in with Coach Sinclair has really attacked his problem areas. His liabilities physically have become his assets physically."
The Herd's hope is that Rouse's play will have opponents saying that nickname ... "Uncle."