Marshall football: Herd shores up defense with recruits
HUNTINGTON -- Marshall Coach Doc Holliday knew he'd have to fill some holes on the Thundering Herd's defense with his 2013 football signing class. And that need grew, at least with the Herd fanbase at large, with each game of 2012.
The Herd allowed at least 40 points in seven of 12 games, and at least 50 points in four of them, culminating in a 65-59 double-overtime loss at East Carolina that knocked Marshall out of bowl contention. The Herd sat at the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision in offense, but lingered at the bottom in defense on its way to a 5-7 record.
In trying to rebound from those performances, Holliday mixed prep school and junior college players among the 14 defenders they added in the 29-recruit signing class.
"We felt going in, we knew what the needs were," Holliday said. "With the way the offenses are going in today's world, you have to be able to create a pass rush with your down four or down three, whatever scheme you're running. We need some pass rushers that can get there without having to blitz.
"We worked hard on getting that done, along with the people we knew we already had on campus, to shore that deal up. And at the linebacker position, we wanted to continue to get more athletic."
Five of the 14 defenders were rated as four-star prospects by at least one recruiting service: Miami (Fla.) Booker T. Washington safety Michael Johnson, Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High cornerback D'Andre "Chocolate" Wilson, Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy linebacker Stefan Houston, Hollywood (Fla.) McArthur linebacker Jeremiah Benjamin and Atlanta (Ga.) Sports Academy linebacker Kent Turene.
Marshall's 2012 defensive statistics show the unit could use the help. There were 120 members of the FBS last season. The Herd was ranked 101st in total defense, allowing 456.58 yards per game.
It ranked 119th in scoring defense, allowing 43.08 points per game. Marshall scored at least 38 points and lost in three games last season.
Those woes weren't the primary motivation for Wilson to sign his letter of intent to Marshall. He loved how the program made him feel like family and how Huntington reminded him of Clemson when it came to a town enamored with college football. But that doesn't mean he isn't excited to join the Herd roster and make as big of an impact he can.
"I want to come in and try to play my role," Wilson said. "I want to do the best I can to help the defense. I'll try my best. I'm excited. I'm ready to learn a new defensive style."
A knee injury shortened Wilson's senior season to two games, where he recorded 15 tackles, but he racked up 39 tackles, six interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns as a junior. He's talked with new Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater and feels he has the traits that will make him valuable in Marshall's lineup.
"They want to see a physical corner," he said. "I feel I'm a physical-type of corner, so I'm going to try to go in and be as physical as possible and also use my speed."
Linebacker Neville Hewitt, on the other hand, was spurred to sign with Marshall after watching last year's defense. He saw the Herd's 44-41 win over Houston, a game Marshall led 31-10 at halftime. He watched Marshall's defense force the Cougars into four three-and-out situations on their first five drives of the game. He also watched Houston erupt for 282 yards and 31 points in the second half.
"I've seen where I can make a difference on the defense," Hewitt said. "And (Heater) came down to talk to me the other day, and the way he was describing the defense to me and my role in the defense, it felt comfortable to me."
Hewitt recorded 65 tackles and five pass breakups last season as a safety/linebacker hybrid at Georgia Military College. He was rated a three-star prospect by Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN. He wants to immediately help a Herd team with which he's already built a close relationship.
"I've got a family relationship with Coach Holliday and (safeties) Coach (Todd) Hartley already," Hewitt said. "And Coach Heater, we've got a nice little bond. To hear those familiar names, that makes me even more excited for third down when that bell rings."
Marshall's defense wants to get the fans excited again when that bell tolls on third down throughout Joan C. Edwards Stadium. To do that, it will need to improve on a 2012 third-down conversion rate (44.51 percent) that ranked 97th in the FBS. Holliday hopes this signing class will help the defense improve the way Marshall's offense improved from 2011 to 2012, when it jumped from 102nd in total offense (333.38 yards per game) and 99th in scoring (21.85 points per game) to sixth in total offense (534.25 ypg) and seventh in scoring (40.92 ppg).
"It took us two years to get to the point where we wanted to be offensively, as far as our talent was concerned," he said. "I'm hoping with this class ... and I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're going to make that same jump defensively that we made offensively. I'd like to. That's our goal, is to get this defense to make as much improvement as the offense did. And that's Coach Heater's goal. "
Holliday said the athleticism of this signing class should help that happen.
"I said from Day One that I took the job, that it's a personnel-driven game," Holliday said. "You look out there last year and saw three freshman running backs that could play and Cato was starting to grow up and that offensive line was starting to grow up, and there were wideouts out there that can make plays. We're starting to get that on defense, now. We're starting to have the kind of athletes, defensively, that we have on offense. And when you get both of them, you've got a chance."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.