Dec. 21, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Taj Letman had plenty of suitors – Big Ten and SEC schools in multiples – as he went through 2012 spring football practice at his Mississippi junior college.
The key word there is had.
“The majority of schools backed away after I got hurt,” said Letman, just hours after returning a signed National Letter of Intent to Marshall on the first day of the midyear JUCO signing period. “Some schools did try to come on late.
“Last year, where I was going was up for grabs. But when other schools didn’t stick around, Marshall was right there all along.”
Letman is a safety, something Coach Doc Holliday’s fourth MU team really will need, with starters Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha – Boston College graduate transfers, playing their solo Herd seasons in 2012 -- having finished their eligibility.
Letman, 19, never played a down this season at Holmes Community College. He suffered an injury “in the third team period of the first day of preseason practice,” he said. “I stood up a running back on a bubble screen. I went back on the defensive side and felt something and thought I broke my finger.
“I looked at it and it was like my finger wasn’t there. Torn ligament in my right ring finger … I needed surgery. They went in and put an anchor in it. Even if I could have played, I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t have the surgery, I could have lost my finger.”
So, the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder comes to Marshall with three years of eligibility remaining.
“Three years left puts me in a whole different category than I would have been if I was going to come there as a junior,” said Letman, who hails from Elberton, Ga., “less than an hour from Georgia’s campus,” he said. “I really missed playing this year, but knowing I have an extra year now to play for Marshall should help me.”
Letman had early offers from his “hometown” Bulldogs, Kentucky, Baylor, Nebraska and Purdue. Arizona State tried to get in late. Ohio State was around last spring before his injury. FIU, Charlotte and Louisiana-Lafayette liked him a lot, too.
Marshall’s recruiting effort was spearheaded by first-year cornerbacks coach Lytrel Pollard, a Mississippi native and former Southern Miss defensive star and assistant coach. Letman said it helped that Pollard knew the territory.
“Coach Pollard stayed true to me,” Letman said. “Coach Holliday, whenever I talked to him, he just kept telling me how much I could help them. I went up there for a visit and it was rainy and cold, and Marshall lost (54-17 to UCF), but the crowd (22,563) was loud and even though it was rainy, they turned out.
“When I was there, it just felt like home to me.”
In his Wednesday offseason press conference, Holliday called Letman “long, physical.” He said the wide-open offenses of today, particularly in Conference USA, call for safeties who can “play sideline-to-sideline.”
Letman said that on his official visit for that UCF game, he “really liked the way the safeties (LeGrande and Okoroha) played. They were real aggressive. For the season I know they both had more than 100 tackles. I liked the way they came down, ran downhill.
“I can do that. With my range and speed (Letman said he’s been clocked at 4.42 in the 40-yard dash), I can get there to make a tackle, but I can cover, too. You asked whether I’d want to play free or strong (safety). I’d say I’m kind of a hyper-safety. I just want to make a play.”
Letman posted a 6-8 high jump in high school at a regional meet. He said that his weakness might have been just that.
“When I came into junior college, I was weak,” Letman said. “I played all on skill. I’m stronger now, and I know I’ll get a lot stronger and build on my frame once I get into the weight room up there at Marshall. Down here (at Holmes) when I added about 8 pounds of muscle, my game just elevated.”
Letman, who will enroll at Marshall next month, had 59 tackles and 10 pass breakups in 2011 as a JUCO freshman. He said a good part of his decision for the Herd came down to opportunity to play soon.
“Once I narrowed it down to my final choices, Marshall was on top hands down,” he said. “It’s a young team. I could see a lot of talent there, and there only were a few missing pieces, and (safety) is one of those.
“(Quarterback Rakeem) Cato is really good. We can have a bright future. I want to win. My personal goal is to make all-conference next year, as a sophomore. I think I can do that.
“The biggest thing is getting back to playing football again. You don’t believe how much you can miss it until it’s taken away from you. Football has been pretty much everything to me, and Marshall gives me an opportunity to play again.
“This day (signing day), it’s a great day in my life.”