Marshall football: Van does what it takes to help Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - If Marshall football Coach Doc Holliday was worried at all that Travon Van would balk at switching from starting running back to reserve corner, Van's immediate answer put him at ease.
"It was 'Yes, for sure, Coach,' " Van said. "Anything the team needs, I'll do it. He knows it. That's why he asked me."
The redshirt sophomore knew the offensive backfield would be in good hands with redshirt freshmen Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson. Plus Van has a pretty good defensive resume - Florida, Miami (Fla.) and Southern California all coveted Van as a corner. So that's why the Thundering Herd's second-leading rusher in 2011 switched from getting tackled to making tackles.
There were some initial growing pains, especially watching film, but Van said the rest of the secondary was willing to answer any question he asked.
"There were times I'd watch the defense and I'd be like, hold on, I'm supposed to be watching the offense," he said. "It was fine learning everything with all those guys helping me."
And once Van took the practice field as a corner, the other defensive backs realized quickly why Van earned the respect he did as a corner recruit. He hadn't played the position since his days at Milford Academy, but the natural abilities were evident.
"He can run," safety Okechukwu Okoroha said. "And his ball skills, sometimes when the ball is thrown his way, you can see how going to get the ball is just natural for him. He's got good hips. He can turn them. He can be put in a bad situation and get out of it by flipping his hips."
Van got the word he'd be entering the game versus Rice a couple of series before his debut. He appreciated the heads-up because, rather than build up butterflies, it allowed him to think about coverages and strategies. He hoped he could sneak into the game without the Owls knowing he was in, but that pipe dream was almost instantly dashed.
"They called an audible and here comes the bubble screen my way," Van said. "I saw (Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue) look over, I looked over at their sideline and they're all looking at me and I was like, 'OK, I better get ready because here it comes.' "
What came was a chop block on his first play, a bit of a "welcome to defense" present that allowed the receiver to zip past him. But Marshall defensive coordinator Chris Rippon isn't worried about Van's future. He knows Van has the talent to be a significant contributor and a corners coach in Lytrel Pollard that can get him there.
Rippon is very impressed with Van's willingness to switch. He knows Van could have refused, but agreed to help the team in a time of need.
"I think that's a reflection on the team and what Doc's built here," Rippon said. "You're going into your third year and you're preaching a philosophy and when a situation like that comes up and somebody jumps both feet in, I think that's incredibly positive for the program.
"He's that kind of kid," Rippon added. "He's as competitive as can be. He wants to do it right and he's got a heck of a coach. To be able to play in the game from Tuesday to Saturday and play in that kind of game says a lot for both of them."
Van didn't look forlornly at Marshall's rushing numbers against Rice, wishing he could be part of the 334 yards the Herd gained. He applauded his former backfield mates. He's a corner now, and becoming the best corner he can is the new mission.
"I'm here on defense now," he said. "That's my main focus. If they need me on offense, I'm sure I can go back over there. If the team needs to focus on defense, I'm going to focus on defense."
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WHEN HERD offensive coordinator Bill Legg enters Ross-Ade Stadium to face Purdue (2-1) at 3:15 p.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network telecast), it will be familiar territory. Legg spent five seasons from 2003-07 on the Boilermakers' staff, serving as co-offensive coordinator the last two.
He'll spend some time musing over his tenure in West Lafayette, Ind., but it will be just a little time.
"We had a great five years there," Legg said. "Great people, a lot of friends still in the community. But at the end of the day, we'll take a chance to reminisce for about 30 seconds and then we'll go to work. My job is to help us to find a way to play to the very best of our ability, and see what happens after that."
Legg has experience against Big Ten defenses - and experience playing well against them. With him calling most of the plays, Purdue's 2006 team led the Big Ten in passing and total offense and finished in the top 13 nationally in both. He knows Marshall (2-2) has a tall task ahead.
"That's a good defense," he said. "Let's face it. Notre Dame had to go a two-minute drive at the end of the game to kick a field goal to win that football game. And they're undefeated right now, if I remember correctly. We've got to execute the things we do best and find what our niche is."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.