By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – When a guy has traveled more than 2,400 miles from his home to play major college football, what’s moving a few yards more?
Gage Niemeyer left the Left Coast to head to the Right Coast – OK, geographically, Huntington is on the South Bank of the Ohio – to play on Marshall’s building and improving offensive line. And when the Hemet, Calif., native was suddenly called on to play, he was faced with another left-to-right move.
After working mostly at left tackle in combination with Jordan Jeffries through the early part of August camp, Niemeyer became the “swing” guy behind starters Jeffries and right tackle Garrett Scott. Then, on the 18th offensive play of the Herd season opener last Saturday at West Virginia, Scott was carted off with an injury.
Niemeyer was ready – kind of – as well as willing, and as it turns out, able. And after 75 snaps in his first Thundering Herd game (and grading out at 73 percent at Mountaineer Field), the junior college transfer gets his first start tonight on the right side in the home opener against Western Carolina at Edwards Stadium, as Scott still recovers from injury.
“The biggest difference is the footwork, and mentally, you have to flip everything in your head,” Niemeyer said earlier this week. “I had never played right tackle before in my whole life, so if you flip me over to right, it’s just different.
“You know, you’re kicking left your whole life, and then you’re kicking right. It’s physically harder, but I’m the swing guy, so I have to be able to do it and I think I did a pretty good job.
It’s like a muscle memory thing. You’re doing something one way your whole life, and then somebody asks you to flip it. You’re throwing a baseball with your right hand your whole life, and then someone comes up and says, ‘Here, throw it left-handed.’
“You don’t let people beat you inside, or outside to the left. Now, it’s inside to the left, outside to the right. I mean, you can do it, but it’s going to take a little practice and a little getting used to.”
The 6-foot-6, 283-pound Niemeyer is just glad to be playing. His major college opportunities seemed to all but vanish last season when he dislocated an ankle and suffered a fractured fibula in late October of his sophomore season at Mount San Jacinto College.
He had early offers from Nevada and New Mexico State, but those and other suitors, including TCU, backed off. Marshall stayed with Niemeyer, whose hometown is 10 states away (driving it), in the San Jacinto Valley, between Los Angeles and San Diego.
“It’s been a little different, but some of the same,” Niemeyer said. “I’m completely across the country, but at same time it kind of reminds me of my hometown (Hemet’s population is 80,000).”
The other transition was more stunning.
“Coming here from junior college, I played before my biggest crowd of about 1,500 people, 2,000 maybe.
Then I go out onto Mountaineer Field, and I just looked around and it was kind of like a ‘Wow!’ moment.
It was kind of an eye-opener, like wow, this is what I’ve worked so hard for my whole life. And here I am.
“It wasn’t really nerves. That was the weird part. When I first got to the stadium it was, ‘All right, I’m a little jittery.’ But once Garrett went down, it was instant focus, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go, so I think I jumped into the role quite well, considering the circumstances.”
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday hasn’t been nothing but impressed with Niemeyer.
“Gage has been tremendous,” Holliday said. “For a junior college guy coming in, he’s really picked up and learned the offense. He’s smart. He can play. He’s gotten a lot stronger and he’s going to be a really good player for us.
“We’ve said all along that Gage, Jordan and Garrett are all three starters, and they’re going to play about an equal amount when Garrett gets back … I was proud of the way that whole offensive line played (in the loss at WVU), to be honest.”
The bearded Niemeyer echoed Holliday and veteran right guard John Bruhin in saying the major fix the Herd front needed from Week 1 to 2 – after a 545-yard total offense day -- was in the running game.
“I think it was just some little fundamental stuff, stepping, say, 6 inches too far, too narrow, and we don’t get the right block,” Niemeyer said. “We’ve got to fix the little things and it will make a huge difference. We’re one block from breaking a 60-yard touchdown. There are little things like that we can highly improve on.”
Niemeyer said the presence of sixth-year senior Bruhin next to him in the JUCO transfer’s debut was “a big help, too.
“He’s played here forever,” Niemeyer said. “He knows everything, so if I’m mentally swimming a bit, he can instantly bring me back down, or if I miss a call, he can help. The other thing that helps us is we have a lot of depth, so much more depth than was here before.
“We’re physically better; we’re mentally better … Garrett is a big part of our offense and the sooner he can come back, the better we are. But it’s nice knowing we have so many guys who can go in there, so if someone like Garrett does go down, we can go on without a hiccup.”
Niemeyer’s debut came in an atmosphere the Herd isn’t likely to experience the rest of the season, but he said there was something else ringing in his head when he ran onto the Mountaineer Field turf as Scott was being checked out and lifted onto the medical cart.
“The thing I just kept thinking of is what Coach Holliday says,” Niemeyer said. “When your number is called, you’ve got to go out there and make a play. So, when I saw Garrett go down, I thought, ‘OK, it’s my time,’ so I just have to go out there and get the job done.”