Oct. 19, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Those recent Subway footlong sandwich commercials – “ 5 … 5 … 5 …” – have nothing on Marshall’s football team.
Granted, the Thundering Herd is only at the halfway point of the 2012 season, but the team’s running game is on target to do something no MU team has done since the Herd returned to major college football in 1997.
As the Herd (2-4, 1-1) goes to Southern Mississippi (0-6, 0-2) for Saturday’s 7 p.m. (EDT) Conference USA game, Coach Doc Holliday’s team has its top three running backs each averaging more than five yards per carry.
The Herd’s trio of backs – redshirt freshmen Kevin Grooms (5 feet 10, 165 pounds), Steward Butler (5-9, 165) and Remi Watson (5-10, 202) – are at 5.3, 5.9 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively.
Butler has the most attempts (61) and total yards (321) Grooms (53 carries, 312 yards) leads in yards per game (62.4).
Watson, the starter – if that matters with this bunch – has 37 rushes, 197 yards and has run for four touchdowns, as does Grooms (he also has a TD reception). Butler has two rushing TDs. The Herd has 12 touchdowns on the ground in a half-season, after getting only 16 in Holliday’s first two MU years combined (7 and 9).
In 151 carries, the three have lost only 26 yards. Watson hasn’t been dropped for a loss this season. And when he gets about 50 carries, considering the “tri-back attack,” those 5.0-plus averages will take on more significance.
“I honestly think we can do more, get those averages higher,” Grooms said after a Herd practice earlier this week. “We all keep competing; we’re getting better every day, learning more about the system every day.
“You don’t get as many game reps with three of us, but when somebody else in in there and you’re sitting, you just want to get in there when it’s your turn and make a play. When it’s your time, you want to take advantage of it. You never know what can happen.”
All three backs starred in Florida high schools, and only Watson was in the program a year ago as Grooms and Butler were at MU as non-qualifiers. And when they finally got onto the field in August, they were among six RB hopefuls.
That six has been halved. Essray Taliaferro is a special teams performer. Tron Martinez hasn’t returned from offseason arthroscopies on both knees. Travon Van missed some of August drills, returned as the opening day starter, but has since moved to cornerback and is on the shelf again.
“Even with (six backs), I felt like I had to just come out and prove myself and just keep working, and it would work itself out,” Grooms said. “Once the season started, I knew my abilities, so my expectations for myself were to get out there and make plays, no matter who was there. The competition we have helps us, I think.
“If I make a play, Stew wants to make a play. If Stew makes a play, Remi wants to make a play. If Remi goes and makes a play, I want to make a play. It’s a competitive thing. Coach (running backs coach JaJuan Seider) is so big on our potential, and he expects it, so we’ve got to meet his expectations and our own expectations.”
Grooms is the fastest player among the Herd, at least with his official time of 4.29 seconds in the 40. Butler is third at 4.31, just behind wideout Aaron Dobson (4.30). Watson’s time is 4.50.
“No big deal,” Grooms said. “We’ve got a lot of guys here who are fast.”
Grooms originallywas a February 2011 signee with Miami (Fla.), but issues with the NCAA Clearinghouse changed his collegiate route. He came to Marshall in August 2011 and tried to be patient.
“That was really tough for me,” Grooms said. “It was very disappointing to have to sit out last year because I have a passion for the game, a real passion. I just love playing football.
“I felt like I was going to do everything in my power to get back out there, because it was something I love, something I live for. Without it … Being out here now is like new life to me. It’s like air and water.”
Butler and Grooms already rank 10th and 11th in single-season freshman rushing in Herd history. Watson needs only 65 yards to get to No. 12.
As further points of reference, Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 467 yards as a 2004 freshman. Chris Parker gained 602 in ’92, Darius Marshall 631 in 2007. He’s second to Doug Chapman, who has the freshman record of 1,238, set in 1996.
“It took a bit to get the rust off,” Grooms said of being away from game competition and hitting from the end of his 2010 senior season at South Broward High in Hollywood, Fla., until this August. “The players are bigger and faster a step above high school, and at first coming in, the tempo was fast and to be honest it took a good month to get into the flow, really.
“But while I was out, I worked so that when I could come back to the kind of player I was in high school. We had our summer workouts, but I did a lot on my own, ladder drills, running routes, catching passes, running on my own. I’d tie a tire onto me and run 50 yards again and again.”
Grooms said he has found an offense that is tailored to his abilities, too, even if in the first six games the pass-run play percentage was 58-42 favoring the air.
“The tempo, I love it, running as many plays as we do,” Grooms said. “It’s just hard to explain, but I always wanted to play in a fast offense, because I knew my speed fit with it. And if the defense has less time to rest and gets tired, that’s to my advantage with my speed … speed kills.
“With offense we have, with the tempo and the backs and receivers and all the different options we have and (FBS passing yards-leading quarterback Rakeem) Cato, it’s hard to stop us. No one can key on the running backs. That should help us get even more yards because we’re still learning.”