BOGACZYK: Herd’s Enduring Defense Has People Talking
The Word on the Herd-Oct. 13, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When Marshall’s defense held Old Dominion and Southern Miss to 7 and 10 points, respectively, in starting 2-0 in Conference USA play, it was the first time Herd football had so limited the scoreboard numbers in back-to-back games since November 2003.
But if defensive coordinator Chuck Heater’s bunch is really looking for a reference point that reflects the here-and-now among its peers, how about this:
Marshall’s defense has been on the field for 494 plays in six games. That’s the most snaps for any major college team. When a defense is on the field that much, it’s going to give up yards, and Marshall ranks No. 49 in total defense (363 yards per game).
However, consider a more significant number … The Herd ranks No. 16 in yards-per-play allowed, at 4.41 and is tied for the top nationally with Alabama in three-and-outs per game (6.83).
In the Herd’s 5-1 start, it has forced 11 fumbles and defended 47 passes – both numbers rank second nationally – and have held foes to 33 percent on third or fourth down, which is better than the 35-percent Heater goal. Marshall’s defense also ranks in the top 12 in FBS in nine other categories.
Herd weakside linebacker Evan McKelvey – he’s No. 2 in the country in tackles (70) -- has noticed something else about the Marshall defense on which he plays such an integral role.
Marshall fans are talking about Coach Doc Holliday’s defense in the same appreciative tones they had reserved in recent seasons for a Cato, Shuler or Jasperse.
“This is a first since I’ve been here, people talking about our defense,” said a grinning McKelvey, who is in his sixth season with the program following two surgeries for ACL repairs. “It’s always been the offense, the offense, the offense.
“Just to have the defense get a little credit … The offense always gave our defense props and everything, but to hear it from the fans a lot … It’s just great to hear the fans talk about us like that.” In the first five games against FBS foes, Marshall’s defense has been on the field for 101 more plays than the opponents. Quarterback-harassing end Gary Thompson – the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week for his disruptive work against Southern Miss – said that wearying notion is not all bad.
“Really, we don’t know how many plays we’re in there for until the next day, when Coach (Heater) says, ‘Oh, yeah, they ran such-and-such plays,’” Thompson said. “We really didn’t think it was 93 plays (by USM). It didn’t feel like 93, especially on the D-line where we’ve got such a rotation going on.
“You really don’t feel like you’re playing that many snaps. We’re so conditioned from practice, we run in practice and so in games, it’s just a habit, so we don’t think about it.”
Marshall’s defense lost six starters from 2014, and few expected this season’s unit to be so stifling in its play so soon, but McKelvey said the increased time on the field under fire has aided young players like nickel Antavis “Skip” Rowe, cornerback Rodney Allen and junior college transfer middle linebacker Devontre’a Tyler, who is new to the system.
“We’re well-conditioned,” McKelvey said. “And for me, I like being out there, but playing so many snaps gives other guys a chance to come in. Like (redshirt freshman) Ryan Bee at end; we found out about him because the defense is out there so long, and he’s becoming a good player. Even in the secondary, we’ve got (safety) Kendall Gant getting reps. He’s become good a player. Playing that many plays is good, in one way, for our defense because more guys have to play for us to be fresh.”
In discussing his team’s dominating performance against Southern Miss that included 15 pass breakups and 17 quarterback hurries, Heater liked the numbers except in one fashion. He’s also the secondary coach, and that group is working with a lack of depth.
Safeties Taj Letman and Tiquan Lang played every snap against the Golden Eagles. Junior cornerback Corey Tindal sat for only eight. Rowe played 63, splitting between nickel and corner. Allen played 56, with senior corner Keith Baxter getting 48.
Thompson, playing the “Fox” rush end spot, said he thinks some opponents overlook the quality of the Herd defense because the starting front four averages less than 275 pounds. Linebackers McKelvey and D.J. Hunter are 220 and 210, respectively.
“It’s our size,” the 252-pound Thompson said. “It seems like we’re so small. Most people on defense (up front) you see are close to 300 or so, but none of our guys are like that. We’re 290 or smaller, so we’re pretty small in size. Some people do see we’re extra-athletic and quick for our size, but people do look at us as undersized and try to use that against us.
“It makes us a lot quicker … and we’re strong. They always think about small and figure we don’t have any strength to us, and that’s where they underestimate us a lot.”
The Herd defense has been boosted since C-USA play began by the return of Maryland transfer Shawn Petty at linebacker. Petty missed the last stages of August camp and the first four games while he recovered from an injury, and he’s been an impact player in the two league wins for Marshall.
“Each week, I think we’ve gotten so much better,” McKelvey said of the Herd defense. “It’s growth. I’ve got more trust in everybody I play with now. In the beginning of the season, I felt like we had a lot of young players, inexperienced, and they did a lot of dumb stuff – dumb penalties. That stuff.
“The other day Skip Rowe made a comment, ‘Hey, I haven’t gotten a penalty today,’ and I was like, ‘That’s good, man.’ Then he said, ‘I’m playing for the person beside me.’ When you’ve got young players saying stuff like that, it makes everything run well. I trust everybody now. Everybody is communicating and it works well.”
The loss of star performers like cornerback Darryl Roberts, linebackers Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes and linemen James Rouse, Ra’Shawde Myers and Arnold Blackmon has been offset by the return to health of McKelvey and Thompson, and the experience of tackles Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon, Hunter at linebacker and Tindal and Letman on the back side.
“We kind of knew where we were in camp, when everybody was back and healthy,” Thompson replied when asked if he figured the Herd defense might click this soon. “We realized, ‘Hey, we’ve still got some guys here from last year, not everybody’s gone.’ It told us we had a chance.
“And everybody was looking at one another, and it was ‘Well, we’ve got two choices: we can be a great defense or we can be an OK defense.’ And we all decided to be a great defense so everybody started taking to coaching and started working on what he needed to work on to be a better player, individually. And then you look at it as a whole. What we can do together, as a team.”
What can the Herd defense do together?
“Just play,” Thompson said. “You have young guys in there at some positions so you have to show them how. Coach (J.C.) Price (the defensive tackles coach) used to show us film from last year. ‘This is what we did last year and that has to carryover and be better.’
“Here and there, we had some young guys who were not getting it. Now, you see they’re starting to come along ... technique-wise, knowing the plays, what you’re supposed to do. It’s coming together.” McKelvey said people were talking about the Herd defense previously, but it was with a question mark. No more.
“There’s always going to be overlooking,” the Marshall senior said, “because we lost Neville Hewitt, Jermaine Holmes, Darryl Roberts, James Rouse … But you know what? That’s when you have to have people to step up. And we have.”