Nov. 1, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Six months ago, it wasn’t supposed to be like this in the backfield with Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato.
As spring practice ended, the Thundering Herd running back spot figured to be a two-horse race between redshirt sophomores Kevin Grooms – the reigning Conference USA Freshman of the Year – and classmate Stew Butler. Another redshirt sophomore from Florida who was one of the Herd “Baby Backs” last season – Remi Watson – was thought to be No. 3 for 2013.
Somebody forgot to tell Essray Taliaferro.
Or, if they did tell him, he didn’t listen.
“I’ve always been determined, despite what others would say or what others feel,” the 5-foot-9, 183-pound Taliaferro said. “I figure if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will believe in you, so I go in with that mentality.”
When the aforementioned sophomore trio was down or unavailable in the final game in 2012, Taliaferro got his first career start and ran for a career-best 130 yards in an overtime loss at East Carolina. However, his late fumble contributed to a heartbreaking defeat that left Marshall home for the holidays with a 5-7 record.
When August camp began, everyone pegged Taliaferro as playing out his career as a redshirt senior and No. 4 running back … everyone except the Washington, D.C., native, however.
So, here we are at Week 8 for the Herd, and No. 16 is No. 1 … not because he has more than speed and cutting ability. He’s got dependability.
Taliaferro – “Tally” to his teammates – has been the starting running back in every game to date. He has picked up where he left off at ECU, and in Marshall’s 51-49 defeat at Middle Tennessee eight days ago, he had a career-high 134 rushing yards.
With first-year running backs coach Thomas Brown and veteran offensive coordinator Bill Legg in charge of his playing time, Taliaferro has been unyielding. He is a fierce, last-line protection for Cato.
“He’s been important,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said of Taliaferro, who was a walk-on in 2009, the season before Holliday arrived at MU. “He is the best guy we have for protection. He’s done a terrific job with the protection of Cato and that’s one of the reasons that he is playing more than the rest of them.
“A year ago, he wasn’t to where he is now, but he has worked hard to get there. He’s done a great job with the younger guys on the team and he’s been a captain for us multiple times. He’s become a really good player for us.”
In his last eight games (seven this season plus the 2012 finale), Taliaferro has rushed for a 79.0-yard average. In his career, he’s also returned punts and kicks, and he has 1,181 all-purpose yards. On special teams, he also has 11 tackles.
No small part of his success is resilience. No small part is his versatility. After a triple-overtime loss at Virginia Tech, Holliday said Taliaferro was on the field late because of his value as a blocker in passing situations.
“It’s perseverance,” Taliaferro said when asked how he’s won the starting job and kept it when others have more athletic ability. “I never held my head. I always knew what I was capable of doing, and if the situation presented itself, I always worked hard to get there, and I would succeed if I were given the chance.”
When Brown – a former Georgia star running back – was named his position coach in the offseason, Taliaferro had a new opportunity to impress. He caught the ball. He blocked. And when new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater sent blitzers at Cato, Taliaferro stood strong in front of the pocket.
“Blocking and catching are part of being a running back at this level,” Taliaferro said. “If you can’t block, they can’t really keep you down there, and you’re not going to be in the game in passing situations. And with teams passing so much these days … So more than likely, you’re going to only get reps on first and second down at most.
“The catching part and blocking part of the game, it can take your game to another level, your opportunity to another level. It also helps Cato, because he has confidence in you that if someone gets past the offensive line, you can help him out.”
He admits the parts of his game beyond carrying the ball were not instinctive.
“Picking up the blitz is probably hardest thing for a running back to learn,” said Taliaferro, who also had 105 rushing yards in the driving rain at Virginia Tech in late September. “Running the ball is so natural, that comes instinctively, but you have to be taught to block and if you can do it, it takes your game to another level.
“When you’re in high school, you don’t pay attention to blocking that much, but when you come to college, it’s such a big part of the game and you take it more seriously, and when you see other people doing it, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a good block.’ Blocking is a big deal for us.
“Then, if you can catch the ball, it means you can stay on the field on third-and-long and help out in the pass game, it’s another part of the running back’s game … It means a lot that (his coaches) can depend on me from the first possession to the last. I’m honored they think of me like that, and it shows that hard work pays off.”
Taliaferro takes pride in his ability to be a complete player. He’ll graduate this December with a marketing degree, but when he’s asked his plans for the future, he won’t go beyond “getting us to a conference (USA) championship and a bowl game.”
Holliday, choosing production over potential, said Taliaferro has been an eye-opener.
“He’s made the decision to work really hard, to live right, make good decisions and be a good player,” the Herd coach said. “It’s helped him, especially with the way he has handled himself off the field. He’s done a great job with that.”
Taliaferro has risen from a walk-on under a different coach to a player that is counted on as a leader in more ways than one.
“It’s very satisfying to come from the bottom of the bus, so to speak,” he said. “Now, I’m a starter and a key component to our offense. I was always hoping I could do whatever I could to help our offense succeed, team compete for a championship and get to a bowl game.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned at Marshall? It’s just don’t doubt yourself. If you doubt yourself, that gives others reasons to doubt you. If you have no confidence in yourself, no one else will.”