Oct. 10, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – To paraphrase the Apollo 13 emergency call that has become an American tongue-in-cheeker:
With Houston, Marshall football opponents have a problem.
Stefan Houston’s emergence at linebacker in the Thundering Herd’s 34-10 victory over UTSA last Saturday was another high-card pickup in coordinator Chuck Heater’s already strong hand.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound true freshman from Clarksburg, Md., had been hobbled with a high (right) ankle sprain since Aug. 17. Houston’s college debut came when he played sparingly in the MU triple-overtime loss at Virginia Tech on Sept. 27.
Two Saturdays later, following an open date, Houston was the Herd’s top tackler with eight in the homecoming win (on only 23 snaps), including a half-sack and another tackle for loss – including one on which he lost his helmet. He also had a quarterback hurry.
Now, Marshall (3-2, 1-0) heads for Florida Atlantic (2-4, 1-3) with a big, mobile linebacker it didn’t have to start the season.
Houston has come under the wing of fellow Maryland native Alex Bazzie, the Herd’s two-year postgraduate starter at rush end … not that Houston needed any guidance in relentlessness.
“I told Stefan, ‘Man, I’m probably the most proud person right now because of the fact this is your first college experience,” Bazzie recounted earlier this week. “We’re from the same state; I was your first and last recruiter. You were the first person I ever recruited here and the last person I ever recruited here.
“That made me very proud that you came out there and didn’t show any signs of being lost, or not knowing what was going on. You played like a baller, like you knew what was going on.
“All this time you were hurt, and I can see you were on the sidelines paying attention; you didn’t miss a beat. Granted, you knew you didn’t play four games previously, but you made your first game back worth it, and I’m very proud of you.”
Herd defensive tackles coach J.C. Price
was Houston’s real recruiter, landing the one-time Maryland commit (September 2011, over offers from Rutgers, East Carolina and West Virginia) from Fork Union Military’s prep program.
Houston enrolled at Marshall in January and made an immediate impression in the program. And Bazzie has provided Houston a comfort zone in his short time in Huntington, the 20-year-old linebacker said.
“Bazzie’s been a mentor ever since I came on my visit,” Houston said. “He told me the ups and downs at Marshall. He’s told me every time I have homework to do, stay focused just like I would on the field. Stay level-headed even if I’m not playing in a game, not even stepping on the field.
“He’s told me to be a team player from the day I got here. Play your hardest, work your hardest, help us win. When I had that high ankle sprain, he said I should stick with it because you can live and learn from having this, you can get better or get worse. You can still learn while you’re not on the field.
“Watching Bazzie all of the time, you can see how passionate he feels about the game of football and how hard he’s worked to come this far, and that motivates a guy like me to keep pushing to get better and better day-by-day.”
Houston entered the UTSA game on the second play, subbing in a sam (strongside) linebacker for nickel Corey Tindal. Those two, in many ways, were the eye-opening stars of spring practice.
From Herd coach Doc Holliday in his Tuesday news conference, it sounded a lot like last season. After a season-opening loss at West Virginia in which freshman D.J. Hunter was a backup safety, Holliday said Hunter – now back at starting strong safety -- was moving to linebacker “to get our best 11 on the field.”
“We’re playing (against) a lot more 21 personnel or 12 personnel,” Holliday said. “(The) 21 is with two running backs, one tight end and two wideouts. Twelve is two tight ends, one running back and two wideouts. When you get into that personnel grouping, you get an extra linebacker in the game and the nickel goes out.
“We’ve felt all along that Houston is one of our better players. We didn’t get him involved early because of a high ankle sprain and some things. We felt to get our best 11 on the field, we had to get him to be one of those 11. When (UTSA) went to that 21 personnel, he became part of that 11.
“He played 23 snaps and had 29 production points. He played and led the team in tackles. He brings a more physical, athletic presence to the field against 21 personnel. When we get out of that, they get back in their 11 and four-wide stuff. Eleven and 10 personnel -- three wideouts and four wideouts -- is when Cory Tindal will come in the games and match up there, too.”
Linebackers coach Adam Fuller and Heater can mix and match in increasing numbers now. Besides Houston at sam, Neville Hewitt – the Herd’s top tackler this season – can flip between will (weakside) and mike (middle).
When Jermaine Holmes is in the middle, Hewitt or Evan McKelvey is at will. When Hewitt and McKelvey are on the field together, without Holmes, Hewitt is at mike and McKelvey at will.
“Houston’s a great tackler,” Hewitt said. “He gives us a strong guy on the edge.”