BOGACZYK: For Roberts, the Hits Just Keep on Comin'
The Word on the Herd-September 16, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – If there are several surprising statistics in Marshall’s 3-0 start to the 2014 football season, you might put back-to-back 700-yard games of total offense at the top of the list.
Not too far down that list, however, is a nugget from the other side of the ball.
As Coach Doc Holliday’s team heads to former conference rival Akron (1-1) for a 2 p.m. kickoff Saturday, the Herd lead in tackles is shared by veteran cornerback Darryl Roberts.
Roberts, known as "Swagg" to his teammates, coaches and beyond, doesn’t have such a big-time moniker because of his hitting history. He knows that, but Roberts said Monday that his game-high – and career-best – 11 tackles in MU’s win last Saturday over Ohio is simply part of his development.
"Not necessarily," Roberts said when asked if he ever expected to have 11 tackles in a game. "I don’t really focus on stats. The main objective for me and my team is to get the win. When it comes to tackling, if it comes to me, I’m pretty sure I can make the tackle, but my main focus is covering guys. I have no problem with tackling."
That’s now. Way back in 2010, when Roberts arrived from Lakeland, Fla., in Holliday’s first recruiting class and then played in 10 games, he didn’t quite know how to cope with a guy coming at him with the ball in his hands.
Roberts admits as much when reminded of his lack of physicality in the old days, and says he has prospered under second-year Herd defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chuck Heater.
"Coach (Heater) tells us we’ve got to be physical, be tough if we want to take our games to the next level and that’s what I try to do," said Roberts, who has 133 tackles in his MU career, and posted a season-best 58 in 2013 – sixth among the Herd. "I do want to tackle more. I’ve just got a ‘want’ for tackling now.
"Back then, when I was young, I really didn’t feel like I had a need to tackle when I probably should have been focused on tackling more instead of coverage, but I’m just trying to elevate my game to the next level."
Roberts has four career interceptions – and there’s a reason for that. Because of his superb cover skills, often teams don’t even try to throw to his side of the field. In the Herd’s 3-0 start, his 12 solo hits and 10 assists exactly match that of sophomore safety Tiquan Lang for the club lead.
Some of his increased will for contact comes from spending several years in the Herd’s Dunfee Weight Room. He was 5 feet 11 and only 154 pounds when he arrived at Marshall. He missed the 2012 season after recovering from a broken right ankle and subsequent surgery, and now, he’s a wiry 6-0, 182.
Roberts set a Herd all-time record for cornerbacks and safeties in conditioning this summer when in pro bench testing (225-pound repetitions), he did 22. No other current Herd cornerback topped Roberts’ 1,050 pounds in three lifting disciplines (bench, squat, power clean).
His 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump ranked second among the Herd, 1 inch behind freshman running back Brandon Byrd. Roberts’ 36-inch vertical jump also was No. 2, four inches behind safety-turned-linebacker D.J. Hunter.
"I was always pretty strong for my weight," Roberts said earlier this month, "but once Coach (Scott) Sinclair got here to run the weight room he just pushed us really hard and I just got stronger. I took it seriously, coming into my junior year and now coming into my last year here."
Roberts takes a lot of pride on the cornerback mantra of "playing on an island" in man coverage, not to mention the long-held mantra of being able to forget when playing the secondary. He said a good example came last Saturday, when Bobcats quarterback Derrius Vick hit a 53-yard pass to Chase Cochran on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Nine plays later, including five inside the Herd 15, Ohio’s Josiah Yazdani sent a 19-yard field goal try wide left.
"We really don’t focus on one play," Roberts said. "We always take pride in getting to the next play and erasing the last play out of our head. We know we have a good defense and I know every player is going to do his job.
"If someone makes a play on us, we don’t get too caught up in that and just go on to the next play. You have to be able to forget and just play.
"That goal-line stand was really big. Any time your defense can go out there and get off the field on third down or stop teams from getting points, that’s like a testament to the ‘grind’ (a Heater mantra). It gave our offense momentum, and they took it down and scored (on a Justin Haig field goal).
"It was real big, gave us something to build on, helped us out as far as momentum goes."
Heater consistently praises Roberts’ "football IQ" and the corner’s anticipatory skills on the field. His four pass breakups give him 24 in his career as Roberts prepares for his 32nd career start Saturday – the most on the Marshall defense.
Asked about what challenges Akron’s offense presents, Roberts said Coach Terry Bowden’s Zips "will spread the field, similar to our offense, so I feel like we’ll be already a step ahead because we go against guys like (quarterback Rakeem) Cato, Davonte (Allen, receiver) and guys like that every day in practice.
"So, I feel like we’re one step ahead on teams that like to spread the ball. We go against one of the best offenses in the country every day."
With cornerback being one of the few Herd roster positions that lacks experienced depth, Roberts is usually called upon to lead the Herd defense in plays, too. He's played 171 of the team's 222 defensive snaps this season.
"I really don’t know if I’d give us necessarily a grade, but we’ve played pretty well so far," Roberts said of Heater’s defense. "There’s always room for improvement; we can always come out and get better at little things.
"There are things you don’t focus on too much, but those are things that can really make a difference in a game. I’d say we’re playing pretty well."