Coal Bowl notebook: Improved elements pleases Herd coach; top rushers may sit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Marshall Coach Doc Holliday arrived in Huntington in 2010, he saw two places on the team that needed work - strength and speed.
Both have improved during his tenure and he said both need to be solid when the Herd visits West Virginia University in the Friends of Coal Bowl noon Saturday. The game is being televised on FX.
"I think we've helped ourselves depth-wise at the skill positions and I think we do have more speed," Holliday said. "I know we're stronger now than when I got here, but we still have a ways to go in that department. But I think we have improved and gotten better."
Holliday said the area where it might have helped the most is on special teams.
Before last season, he didn't think he had the speed in those areas to stay with teams like Southern Mississippi and Central Florida. That wasn't the case for the Herd in 2011.
"I didn't think we got outmatched a year ago in our kicking game and I think that won six of seven games for us," he said. "We take great pride in that and put our best guys on that."
Holliday likes his defensive speed in that newcomers like Boston College transfer safeties Okechukwu Okoroha and Dominick LeGrande allowed players like Raheem Waiters and Devin Arrington move from safety to linebacker and add to that units athleticism.
Offensively, the speed from freshman running backs Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler will give the Mountaineers a look they have not yet seen.
"As I've said all along, it's a personnel-driven game and there's no doubt in my mind that we're a better team as far as personnel goes," he said.
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HOLLIDAY RELEASED his first depth chart of the season, and perhaps the most surprising entrant was Essray Taliaferro, who rushed 26 times for 92 yards in 2011, at second-team running back.
But Holliday said it's not too much of a surprise for him.
"Taliaferro is a guy that maybe had the best camp," he said. "He had an exceptional camp in all phases and he can really go. You look at his measurables, he's as good as any of them."
But that doesn't mean freshmen Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms won't see action. The two, who had impressed throughout preseason camp with their speed and agility, won't stay on the sidelines long.
"I could put slash-slash-slash-slash if I wanted to," Holliday said.
One running back who won't play Saturday is 2011 leading rusher Tron Martinez, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Holliday said Martinez, who rushed for 649 yards last season, won't be ruled out for following weeks just yet.
In other depth chart matters, true freshman punter Tyler Williams beat out redshirt freshman Austin Dumas for that starting job. Redshirt sophomore kicker Justin Haig beat out Trent Martin, though Holliday said he won't rule out using both. Redshirt junior Monterius Lovett is listed above Penn State transfer Derrick Thomas at cornerback and redshirt sophomore Ra'Shawde Myers is listed above redshirt junior Alex Bazzie at defensive end.
The starting left tackle could be either redshirt junior Jordan Jeffries or junior Gage Niemeyer, according to the depth chart. The starting tight end could be one of three players - junior Gator Hoskins, sophomore Eric Frohnapfel or redshirt junior C.J. Crawford.
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MARSHALL MIGHT not be alone in opening the season without 2011's leading rusher. WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen repeated Tuesday that sophomore running back Dustin Garrison is, at best, questionable for Saturday's game against the Thundering Herd.
"It depends on how he practices this week," Holgorsen said at his weekly press conference.
Garrison, who had 742 yards and six touchdowns on the ground last season, tore the ACL and sprained the MCL in his left knee in late December as WVU opened practice before the Orange Bowl. He missed spring practice and was limited to partial participation for parts of preseason practice.
Holgorsen revealed Monday that Garrison needed a few days off last week because of soreness. Shawne Alston, who started for Garrison in the bowl and had a career-high 20 carries for 77 yards and two touchdowns, has settled in as WVU's top running back.
Alston, who was limited in 2010 by a knee injury, didn't play until the third game last season because of a neck injury. He scored the first of his 12 touchdowns in the fifth game and didn't get double-digit carries until the eighth game. Holgorsen reminded everyone of that Tuesday. He said WVU will "continuously" evaluate Garrison and that it doesn't mean he'll miss several weeks or the entire season if he doesn't play this week.
"Thirteen games is a long seasons for running backs, where you're asking them to run block, pass block, run with the ball, catch the ball, just a whole lot of things that position does," Holgorsen said. "You need a lot of bodies to do it. We've got five or six bodies."
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WVU IS still making decisions about who to redshirt and could go all the way through Wednesday's practice. Holgorsen said the coaches will talk that night about who will be in uniform for the game and build a more definitive plan about what true freshmen will, or could, play.
He said between 10 and 15 will be in uniform.
"If they don't dress, we plan on redshirting them," Holgorsen said. "If they do dress, they may be guys we know we're going to put in the game and they may be guys we still may try to redshirt."
WVU will start true freshmen Jordan Thompson at inside receiver and Karl Joseph at field safety and figures to play classmates Christian Brown and Korey Harris on the defensive line, Nana Kyeremeh and Rick Rumph at cornerback and K.J. Dillon at safety. A host of others could play in smaller roles or on special teams, but Holgorsen and the coaches have to treat them all the same.
"You've got to be aware of how they are and look at their eyes on the sidelines," Holgorsen said. "If they're wide-eyed and looking up in the stands, you've probably got to slap them around a little bit and get their attention and get them focused on what counts."
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COREY SMITH will handle kickoffs and punts for WVU. As long as he does one Saturday, he'll have the rare distinction of being a member of three BCS conferences. He first played at Alabama in the Southeastern Conference before playing the previous two years with the Mountaineers in the Big East. WVU is now a member of the Big 12.