Marshall football: Heater, Herd defense go back to basics
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- In rebuilding Marshall's defense, Chuck Heater has gone back to the basics.
Along with installing his new scheme, the Thundering Herd's new defensive coordinator and the rest of the staff are spending plenty of time working on the finer points of shedding blocks and taking the right tackling angles. As much as that unit struggled last season, the refresher courses probably aren't a bad idea.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday likes what he sees from those sessions, as do the players on the defensive side, who appreciate both Heater's attention to detail and the passion he's bringing to the job.
"I don't see a lot of guys out that are running around and aren't lined up and don't know where to be," Holliday said. "That's a good thing. We've installed a new defense and they've seemed to understand the concepts and where to line up and they're playing with a lot more fundamentals and techniques."
Solid tackling was hard to come by for Marshall in 2012, and the numbers showed it. The Thundering Herd allowed 456.58 yards per game last season, ranking 101st in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Marshall was 104th in rushing yards allowed at 203.08 yards per game and 119th in points allowed a 43.08 per game.
The Herd allowed 41 points or more in seven of 12 games last year, allowed at least 50 points in five games and at least 65 twice. Despite one of the top offenses in both yards and points, Marshall finished 5-7.
That led to a nearly total overhaul of the defensive staff and the arrival of Heater, who was Temple's defensive coordinator for the last two seasons. Heater said the first two weeks of spring practice have been productive ones.
"The kids, for the most part, understand it's a little different than in the past," Heater said. "We keep adding stuff, which is always harder, adding new things. But they've done a good job. The attitude has been good. They're trying to get better. We know they want to get better and I think we have enough players to be better."
Even the veteran players on the Herd's defensive roster, like rising senior defensive end Alex Bazzie, are happy to return to the fundamentals. They remember the struggles from last year, as much as they'd like to forget them, and they don't want them to return. So if that means some extra tackling drills and some more detailed instruction, that's fine with them.
"All those things, sometimes you forget," Bazzie said. "You just want to go out there and play ball and go hit somebody. With him teaching us basic techniques, it's really helping our game out. Along with his coaching style and along with the things he does want us to learn as far as the defense goes, it's bettering us."
The sessions not only make them better, but they're rarely boring, the players said. Several times during practice, Heater's voice can be heard echoing through Joan C. Edwards Stadium. That fire motivates the players. They say it's proof of how much he cares about them, about the team, about his job and about the game.
"He's bringing a tough coaching style to our defense and in reflection of that, I think our players are starting to pick up off his attitude," the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Bazzie said. "That's a great thing. We've put our trust in him and he's put his trust in us."
At 60 years old, Heater admits he's no spring chicken. Yet he makes sure to coach with the same passion he had as a younger man working his way through the coaching ranks at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Colorado.
"This is a really hard game to play," Heater said. "I've always felt in coaching, that I coach defensive backs like offensive line coaches coach their players. You've got to coach them, got to drive them, got to have energy every day.
"Much more is accomplished with energy and enthusiasm than not. I'm not 30 anymore, but I'm still doing my job, and my job has always been that. Sometimes I have to have a conversation with myself to make sure I bring that."
Rising senior cornerback Derrick Thomas said that if anyone isn't enamored by that coaching style, it doesn't matter. He thinks it's the style Marshall needs right now.
"When you finished 100th or whatever we finished on defense, we don't have any say-so on how anyone can coach," the 6-foot, 181-pound Thomas said. "If he wants to coach hard, that's how he's going to coach and we're going to listen, and that's the only way it can go."
The Herd understands the road back to a respectable defense won't be an easy one.
It will take time and Marshall still has a few months to accomplish that before it opens the 2013 season.
Thomas said he can tell the group already is on the right track.
"I think we're a lot better right now than we were at the end of last season, to be honest," he said. "We've got a lot of work to go. We've got a whole lot of work to do."
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.