By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – This football season, Marshall’s Monterius Lovett has two interceptions, including one he returned 70 yards for the first touchdown he scored of defense in his life. He has five pass breakups and 19 tackles.
All of which is certainly preferable to a high ankle sprain on one leg and a stress fracture in the other leg … and that is how the Thundering Herd’s veteran cornerback played last season.
“Being healthy makes all the difference in the world,” said Lovett, a redshirt senior from Tallahassee, Fla. “Last year, I was only healthy for two games. Being healthy has made me a different player. I feel like all I need to think about on the field is playing football, not whether I’m hurt.”
Lovett’s nickname is “Pacman,” and while he’s gobbling up playing time this season, his toughness was displayed in 2012, when he played through his aches and pains because the Herd was short on corners due to, well, injuries.
Now, as UAB (2-6, 1-4) comes to Edwards Stadium on Saturday for a noon kickoff with the Herd (5-3, 3-1) seeking bowl eligibility, Leggett and fellow corner Darryl Roberts have become ironmen, of sorts.
They’ve established themselves at the two spots. And there hasn’t been any subbing or rotating with other personnel except last Saturday, once the rout was on against Southern Miss.
“Last year, it was very tough,” said Lovett, whose 30 career starts rank tops on defense for Marshall, trailing only center Chris Jasperse’s 33. “I’d miss practice all week, and then at game time get out there and play, and it felt uncomfortable a lot.
“You can’t go out there and expect to have a great game when you don’t practice all week. But this year is different. Every day I think I’m getting better as a player, taking coaching, working on my fundamentals. I think I’m stronger; that helps.
“When it comes game time, I feel comfortable and feel really confident.”
Last season, Lovett played in 11 of 12 games, starting seven. Despite his injured legs – a cornerback’s nightmare – he finished with two picks, six break-ups and 25 tackles.
The wiry (5 feet 11, 171 pounds) Lovett has been a three-time game captain for the Herd in 2013, and his reliability and playmaking ability have flourished through his work with two first-year men at MU -- Scott Sinclair (strength and conditioning) and Chuck Heater (defensive coordinator and secondary coach).
“Pac’s been very consistent with his play and provided really great leadership for us and a big thing is he’s healthy, I think,” Herd coach Doc Holliday said. “Primarily, he’s gotten into what Scott Sinclair has done with him in the weight room and all that and he’s been able to stay healthy all year, and knock on wood, he’s been a good player because of it.
“No doubt, he’s being coached extremely well back there by Chuck. He’s a great kid and he’s worked hard and bought into everything we’re doing. He’s become a great player, an important guy for us.”
Lovett, whose 70-yard scoring return came against Gardner-Webb in Week 2, said he’s finishing his Marshall career with what he thinks is his “best season.” Few who have watched him in a Herd uniform would disagree.
“Some of it is experience, some of it is just learning more as a player,” said Lovett, who has seven career picks. “A lot of things I’ve learned from Coach Heater are things that I never learned before in my time here, and those things have made me a better player.
“He’s taught me a whole lot, fundamentals, technique at corner. I feel like a whole lot of that has made me much better as a football player.
“One example of what he’s taught me that I didn’t know was tackling, you’ve got to stay inside, don’t overrun the ball. Coach Heater talks about that a lot. Stay inside, don’t overrun it. Another thing is the receiver alignment, it can be over-split or under-split. Over-split, be inside. Under-split, play outside.”
Lovett said that while the Herd offense grabbed most of the headlines for its 61-point performance last weekend against Southern Miss, it was an important performance for the defense, too, after a 51-49 loss at Middle Tennessee.
“It was really big for us against Southern Miss,” Lovett said. “The game at Middle Tennessee, it wasn’t a great game for us, and we’d been playing great until that. It wasn’t us. We had a lot of missed assignments, people weren’t tackling well (12 missed tackles).
“We had to come out and bounce back, and we did, everybody coming out and making plays, swarming to the ball, getting them on the ground like we’re taught. It was a great game for us, just like the offense, and it was what we needed to get our confidence back.”
Lovett said UAB offers a different kind of test with its ground-oriented attack.
“They’ll run the ball a lot,” the senior cornerback said. “This week, we just have to tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle, in practice, in the game. Everybody swarm to the ball, tackling … Go out and do what we do, don’t try to do more than what you’re supposed to do. Just do your job, and we’ll get where we want to go.”
Lovett said he is trying to savor his final games in college football, and knows if the Herd can reach a Conference USA championship game for the first time to go with a bowl bid, his time on the field will be extended.
“It’s sinking in my head that my time is growing short,” he said. “Honestly, I can’t stop thinking about it. It seems like it’s gone fast, and I can’t believe this is going to be it, that my time is coming.
“That just makes me more hungry, makes me more intense to cherish every game, every play. Go out and have fun, have fun with my brothers.”
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BY THE NUMBERS: The Herd’s 61-13 triumph over Southern Miss last Saturday put a dent in the school record book.
In rushing for 340 yards on only 27 carries, the 11.3-yards-per-carry average obliterated the previous mark of 8.6 per carry (27-for-232) in a 52-17 Edwards Stadium victory over Akron.
Marshall’s school-record rushing day was 576 yards against Detroit Tech in a 1940 victory, but there is no documentation on the number of MU rushes in that game.
Meanwhile, with the Herd also getting 316 passing yards in the win over Southern Miss, it marked the first time since a 63-28 win over Eastern Illinois in 1992 that Marshall topped the 300-yard mark in rushing and passing in a single game.