Sep 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – As Marshall’s football defense elevates its play in the 2013 season, maybe it’s appropriate that as middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes goes down, his play goes up.
At least, that’s what his coaches think … and want.
The junior from Valdosta, Ga., shared the Herd defensive lead in the 2013 opener with eight tackles (with debuting fellow linebacker Neville Hewitt). Holmes thinks there is more of that to come, too.
On the second Miami (Ohio) offensive series, the RedHawks scored – thanks in large part to a 47-yard pass completion to the Herd 5. However, Holmes had four tackles on that seven-play drive by the visitors – including one for a four-yard loss and one for no gain.
“A couple of times they didn’t even touch me,” Holmes said, wide-eyed, of a night on which he had three tackles for loss and Marshall’s lone sack. “If no one’s going to block me …”
That’s a bad idea.
Earlier in his career, the 5-foot-11, 243-pound Holmes gained the nickname “Freak” because of his combination of speed, size and strength. This summer, his 1,385-pound effort (total lift in the bench, squat and power clean) was tops among the Herd by 25 pounds.
Now, new Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater and linebackers coach Adam Fuller have been teaching Holmes how to enhance his play by being as much of a dachshund as a pit bull … low to the ground.
“Coach Heater and Coach Fuller, when they came in for spring ball, they said I was (playing) too high, and when I was around the ball I needed to use my hands,” Holmes said. “They want me to stay low, because I’m already short. A couple of times last year if I had used my hands, I’d have made the play. This year, I’m using my hands more.
“Sometimes in the past, I’d just run somewhere and I’d run into blockers. Or, I’d be reading a guard and I didn’t see the play coming, really.”
Holmes, who took the career tackles lead (116) among current Herd players from senior defensive end Alex Bazzie (112) in the 52-14 win over the RedHawks, said he’s “becoming smarter” in the game, too. Last season, under former coordinator Chris Rippon, Holmes was benched for a few games because Rippon determined the play calls were getting in too slow.
Holmes started the first six games, then sat for three, and when he returned, he had a team-best 42 tackles over the final three games (UAB 12, Houston 16, East Carolina 14).
By season’s end, Holmes was back in the middle, being his old ferocious self. And in an aggressive man coverage-based scheme employed by Heater, what was formerly a four-word call has been distilled to a single word.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s that different in some ways, but I’m just going out and playing linebacker now and making the calls,” Holmes said. “Coach Fuller and Coach Heater have taught me a lot, and there’s still a lot to learn.
“I’m playing fast and if I mess it up, I’ve learned to go on to the next play. The coaches will tell us what we did wrong when we watch (tape). I just go out and play, but I know a lot more about the defense and the other team’s offense, too.”
Someone important has noticed.
“He’s playing really well,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday remarked about Holmes after the win. “He’s the playing the best football he’s played since he has been here. That has to continue.”
Holmes said there’s no reason that won’t happen, as FCS member Gardner-Webb (1-0) comes to Edwards Stadium for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday to cap MU Hall of Fame Weekend.
“We have a great (defensive) line, with Bazzie, JT (end Jeremiah Taylor), (tackle Brandon) Sparrow,” Holmes said. “That’s helping out a lot, those guys have played a lot, and they’re really strong … (tackle) James Rouse is back in there, too.
“We feel good about ourselves as a group. It really was just the first game, but we felt like we were in better position now than last year. I feel like each game we might still make a couple of mistakes, but we’re way better this year.”
Holliday said the vastly improved defensive depth meant that no one on that side of the ball played more than 36 of Miami’s 58 snaps (including a penalty that nullified one play).
Holmes said he felt like his aggressive success on Miami’s second series set a tone, and “I felt like it got me into the game, and kind of picked up our whole defense, too.”
Holmes ranked fourth among the 2012 Herd with 84 tackles and had 13.5 for losses. He said the Marshall defense should use the first quarter of the opener as an impetus on how to play the rest of this season.
“We made a couple of mistakes in the first period,” Holmes said. “Two big plays (45- and 47-yard Miami completions), one for a touchdown. If we eliminate those, they probably don’t score, period.
‘We have to come out and come on early, right off the bat, because teams like that, if you let them hang around … You see how they were acting when we went in at halftime, 14-14.
“When we finally became the team we can be, you’d see them acting tired and lying on the turf. We have to play every team right from the start like we’re playing somebody from the Big Ten or SEC.”
Whoever the opponent, they’ll find Holmes crouching in front of them, before bursting among them.
“I’m playing lower and using my hands more and reading my keys,” he said. “Really, it’s not a big change, but it’s easier now to know what keys to read. I used to read the guard, read the running backs.
“Now, it’s a bigger picture. Coach Heater says a real linebacker, he can see the whole offensive line, defenders on the side, I’m starting to get that a little more.
“He and Coach Fuller have taught me a lot I just didn’t know. I think I’ve maybe learned something new almost every day from them. It’s going to be different this year.”