Dec. 20, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Marshall’s defensive fix began in earnest Wednesday, and that side of the football will get new leadership in perhaps another three weeks or so.
Coach Doc Holliday’s pre-holiday press conference shed quite a bit of light on the Thundering Herd program besides revealing the two junior college recruits MU landed on the first day of the midyear signing period.
“We looked for a defensive end who can rush the passer, come off the edge and get after the quarterback,” Holliday said. “And what you’re looking for with safeties now are guys who can make plays in space … more athletic guys.”
The JUCO signees Wednesday fit that bill. Arnold Blackmon is a 6-foot-2, 235-pound defensive end from Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. The safety is Taj Letman, who missed this season (hand injury) at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss. He’s 6-3, 195 pounds and had 59 tackles and pass breakups as an HCC freshman in 2011.
“They’re interchangeable,” Holliday said when asked which spot Letman – a free safety in his only year of junior college -- might play. Because he sat out this season, he’ll have three seasons of eligibility at Marshall.
Meanwhile, Holliday said the Herd’s search for a new defensive coordinator will continue into next month, because some of the prospects he may want to interview are with teams in bowls, plus the large number of FBS head coaching changes – 27 FBS programs to date -- has things in flux as well.
Marshall is seeking a replacement for Chris Rippon, who was the defensive coordinator for Holliday’s three seasons heading the program. Rippon resigned last month following a 5-7 season in which the Herd ranked 123rd of 124 FBS teams in scoring defense and was 103rd in total defense, allowing 457 yards per game.
Holliday made a point of saying the Herd will name “a coordinator who has had previous coordinator experience, or is a coordinator right now.”
He also said there is no lack of candidates.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interested and are excellent, but right now there’s just so much going on with the bowls being played,” the Herd coach said. “I think after Christmas when the bowls are finished … and we can probably solidify it the second week of January or so, but right now there’s just a lot going on out there.
“There are really qualified guys who think this is a great job and they’re excited about, so we’ll be fine. There are more head coaching changes than I’ve seen in a long time out there. So things need to settle down and people finish their seasons and then we’ll get this solidified.”
Blackmon is from Bellaire, Texas, a Houston suburb, and also had offers from Kansas State, Houston and Old Dominion. Letman, from Elberton, Ga., (near Athens), was rated as the No. 4 JUCO safety prospect by recruiting services. His other offers included Georgia, Kentucky, Baylor, Purdue, Nebraska, Charlotte and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Blackmon had 21 tackles for loss and eight sacks at Navarro this season. Letman, a former Georgia high school track star (6-4 high jump in a state meet), runs a reported 4.43 in the 40-yard dash.
Holliday reiterated that fullback Devon Johnson would be moved to linebacker – if he starts, the coach said – as part of a defensive transformation. He also said that in addition to Blackmon, two other student-athletes could figure prominently in an enhanced pass rush scheme.
Those two are 6-5, 220-pound Larry Jefferson and Gary Thompson, a 6-3, 215-pounder. Jefferson, originally a Louisville signee who had at least six offers from BCS programs, is from College Park, Ga. Thompson is from La Mesa, Calif., and Helix High, which also produced former Herd running back Travon Van. Jefferson and Thompson will count in the 2013 signing class.
Holliday said that at the pre-Christmas team meeting Sunday night, he asked the 2013 team seniors to stand and “there were 20-plus seniors.” The coach said he hoped that meant “leadership will no longer be an issue,” and the classes in the program are evening out, which aids in recruiting.
“We’re to the point now where we ought to have some depth,” Holliday said.
The Herd coach – named at MU three years and four days ago – now ranks second in sideline seniority among C-USA coaches for 2013, trailing only Rice’s David Bailiff, who has been the Owls’ chief for six seasons.
Holliday said that he also has used the absence of one of 70 FBS bowl bids as a motivator.
“That was kind of my message in the last team meeting,” he said. “You shouldn’t be watching (the bowls), you should be playing.”
He added that the lack of a bowl bid has been assuaged by the postseason honors his players have received, most notably a Conference USA MVP award to sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato. Running back Kevin Grooms was the C-USA Freshman of the Year and linebacker D.J. Hunter and punter Tyler Williams made prominent college football website Freshman All-America teams.
The Herd also had four on the C-USA All-Freshman team, tying for the most in the league.
“Anytime you can get that type of publicity, it helps,” Holliday said. “I think a lot of the kids that won the awards, the majority of them were young guys, freshman or sophomores.
“So, it tells the guys out there that there’s some talent on this football team and that we’re going to be good … I think from that standpoint it helps us.”