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MU football: Herd DBs won't get their signals crossed

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - New Marshall cornerback Derrick Thomas wants to make sure he and fellow newbie safeties Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha are ready for the hair-on-fire offense of the West Virginia University football team and the couch-on-fire fervor of its fans - at all times.

"We walk around the house giving each other hand signals, making sure everybody knows," Thomas said. "I might just walk around giving them a quick signal and they're like 'Yeah, that's that one.'

"We're at a brand new school with a brand new defense and we all have to make sure we're sharp," he added. "One miscommunication might be the one play that changes the game."

Thomas, a redshirt junior transfer from Penn State, and LeGrande and Okoroha, senior transfers from Boston College, may be newcomers to the Thundering Herd but they have the task of slowing down quarterback Geno Smith and the Mountaineers' offense. Yet they're not newcomers to each other, and that familiarity should help them in their mission at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday (noon, FX).

According to the depth chart Marshall Head Coach Doc Holliday released Tuesday, LeGrande and Okoroha will walk into Morgantown as the Herd's starting strong safety and free safety, respectively. Thomas will back up redshirt junior Monterius Lovett at corner, but if his participation in Marshall's open practices are any indication, he'll see a lot of time on the field and plenty of time there with LeGrande and Okoroha.

The trio's experience with each other goes beyond the day this August when they all ran on to Marshall's practice field for the first time. LeGrande and Okoroha have been best friends since they met at Boston College.

Okoroha and Thomas were high school teammates at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Maryland. And Okoroha had told LeGrande all about Thomas before the two met.

So when they're all on the field at the same time, there's no worry about crossed signals.

"We're learning how to adjust to things on the field on the fly now," Okoroha said. "It helps us with that trust factor. If I see something for Derrick, I'll tell him to take a shot on something and he'll trust me and do it, knowing I've got his back. That's something you just build over the years."

It's not just the experience with each other that they feel will help them. All three are veterans of ACC and Big Ten opponents and atmospheres. They've played in hostile environments like Clemson's Memorial Stadium or Michigan Stadium. And they've faced top-level quarterbacks. LeGrande and Okoroha compare WVU's Smith to a pair of Florida State quarterbacks, current Seminoles starter E.J. Manuel and former FSU and current Minnesota Vikings starter Christian Ponder. They see Smith as a calm, pass-first-and-run-when-necessary signal-caller.

"It seems like when the press is on him, he moves around in the pocket and tries to find a way to find somebody open," Okoroha said.

Thomas compares Smith's poise to that of former Michigan State starter Kirk Cousins, a backup for the Washington Redskins.

"He's a better runner than Kirk Cousins, but when he sits in the pocket, he's very accurate and Kirk Cousins is very accurate as well," Thomas said. "He just sits in the pocket and creates space in the pocket to throw the ball."

If the Herd wants to force West Virginia's offense to gear down - no small task against college football's sixth-best passing offense in 2011, which torched Clemson for a bowl-record 70 points in the Orange Bowl - LeGrande said the defense must do something to shake Smith's composure.

"Don't let Geno get into his comfort level where he's just back there doing his thing," LeGrande said. "We need to get in his face and fluster him and make it hard on him."

That strategy works best with effective communication, and the three newcomers say they've been able to build that with each other, as well as established players like Lovett and Keith Baxter. That doesn't mean Thomas, LeGrande and Okoroha won't continue flashing signals as they pass each other in the kitchen.

It might be the first pop quiz in history a college student enjoys. And it might help make a big difference on the Milan Puskar Stadium scoreboard.

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.


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