Oct. 23, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – From one point of view of Derrick Thomas, Marshall’s defense looks very much like the one that troubled the Thundering Herd last football season.
In so many other ways, what Thomas sees is very, very different.
The 6-foot senior from Greenbelt, Md., is one of only three cornerbacks who are regulars in the Herd’s 2013 defense, unless the count includes redshirt freshman Corey Tindal, who has played nickel and impressed.
The same number of corners was used with not nearly the same results as a year ago.
In 2012, it was Thomas – a Penn State transfer – with Monterius Lovett and sophomore Keith Baxter. Baxter was injured in August camp and appears ticketed for an available redshirt season in 2013, while Thomas and Lovett and Darryl “Swag” Roberts – back after missing last season as he recovered from a right ankle fracture – are sharing duties. And Baxter and Lovett gamely played on last season despite various dings, nicks and aches.
“You might say we’re still shorthanded at corner, but we’re holding up well,” Thomas said as the Herd (4-2, 2-0) prepared for Thursday night’s Conference USA game at Middle Tennessee (3-4, 1-2). “Just the fact that we’re healthy this year makes a difference, even though there are just three of us.
“It’s a three-man rotation like last year, but this time we’re healthy, and that’s big. And with the addition of Corey, we have a nickel. We didn’t have a nickel last year.”
The Herd secondary has five of the team’s 10 interceptions – one more than all of last season -- and Thomas has gotten his mitts on a couple that he just hasn’t been quite able to squeeze had enough. Thomas and his corner mates love the man coverage that first-year defensive coordinator Chuck Heater
Another plus, Thomas said, is that the Herd’s second line of defense – the linebackers – are making tackles this season – stops that were often left for safeties and corners a year ago. In six games, too, the Herd has only 47 missed tackles – a very good number, coach Doc Holliday says.
“The linebackers making tackles … it helps a whole lot, a whole lot,” Thomas said. “Now, at corner, we can focus on pass coverage. We don’t have to run Cover Two all the time, bring the corner down just to make tackles. We can do a lot of different things in our defense now, a lot more things.”
Heading to Middle, Marshall ranks 10th nationally in total defense, and its 4.28-yard average per opponents’ rushing play is No. 5 nationally. The notion is often that the more offensive snaps a team gets, the more points a defense will allow.
However, the Herd is 12th in snaps per game (nearly 81) and is allowing only 18.3 points per game. Heater’s bunch also is the most improved in scoring defense nationally, 24.8 points better than a year ago, and a 9.3-point improvement ahead of any other FBS team (Arizona is second at 15.5).
Thomas had a redshirt season (2009) at Penn State and played two seasons for the Nittany Lions before moving to Marshall. He said what the Herd is accomplishing on defense compares favorably to the PSU teams he knew well.
Those three Joe Paterno-coached teams (2009-11) finished ninth, 35th and 20th nationally in total defense.
“Our defense here compares just as well, the same skill set that we had at Penn State,” Thomas said. “Penn State lost to UCF this season, and UCF was in our conference last year, so it all doesn’t make that much difference.
“The skill positions match up anywhere you go, and I think we match up anywhere in the country. I’m really proud of what our defense is doing right now, from the change we made last year to this.
“We’ve made incredible strides, but we still can get better, still improve. There are a lot of things people don’t see that we can improve on, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Thomas, who made eight starts for the Herd last season, likes playing boundary corner best, but he said, “it really doesn’t matter which one to me.” He plays boundary when he’s in the game with Lovett, and plays field corner when he’s teamed with Roberts.
He said Heater’s teachings – the coordinator also is the secondary coach – have inspired as well as helped the Herd defense.
“He’s just a really good coach, and he teaches us a lot of different things,” Thomas said. “But the thing I think he teaches us the most is to strain. He always stresses to us to strain to make plays … strain, strain, strain.”
How many times a day does Heater use the word.
“I’d say 30,” Thomas estimated, with a grin. “Thirty.”
Halfway through the regular season, Thomas said Marshall isn’t looking back.
“All of our goals from the start of the season are definitely still there, winning the conference, bowl game,” Thomas said. “Two out-of-conference games (losses at Ohio and Virginia Tech), you’d like to have them back, but they’re gone, and everything we want can unfold by the end of the season, if we just stay focused.”