Marshall football: Herd 'D' buys into Heater's teaching
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater's philosophy is without frills, even down to the words he uses to call out his unit's alignments.
His quest is simple, too - teach a Thundering Herd defense that wallowed among the worst of the 2012 season to change its ways. If he has his way, that change will come from intensity on the practice field plus in-depth instruction in the meeting rooms. Heater is finding out this preseason he has a defense full of willing students.
Those players no longer want to be known as the weak link of the Marshall football team. They want to be as important to the Herd's reversal of fortunes as its potent offense. So they've embraced both sides of their new coordinator, the fiery coach on the field and the teacher off of it.
They'll finally find out this weekend if those lessons sunk in. The Herd opens its 2013 season at 7 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network) against Miami University at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Senior defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said that when Marshall Coach Doc Holliday first told the defense about its new coordinator, he told the players exactly what they were going to get.
"He's an intense guy," Taylor said. "He's going to coach us hard. That's what we've gotten and that's what we expected. It's been great from day one."
Holliday brought Heater to Huntington not just for that fire, but for his teaching acumen as well. The fourth-year head coach saw it firsthand when he and Heater were on the same defensive staff at Florida. Holliday coached the Gators' safeties while Heater coached the corners. Then-Florida Coach Urban Meyer, now Ohio State's head coach, has been quoted saying he'd sit in Heater's meetings just to watch him work.
Holliday put himself firmly in Meyer's camp when it comes to describing Heater's talent.
"I've never seen a guy who develops players like he does," Holliday said. "He's a great teacher. That year we played for the national championship, we were playing with guys that shouldn't have been playing in the SEC. They played at such a high level, we were able to win it. He develops, he puts a great product on the field and he gets them to play extremely hard."
Those Florida defensive players succeeded, Heater said, because they were willing to practice, play and learn at full throttle 100 percent of the time. The coaches put the pressure on them to do it, but it was the players accepting the challenge that allowed it to work.
"You don't want to be coaching effort," Heater said. "If you coach effort all the time, you can't get down to the nitty-gritty of what goes on. Those guys were guys that had grown a little bit, evolved a little bit, but at that time, they bought in. They found a way to finish things that made a difference in a lot of games."
Heater sees that devotion in his current players. They're soaking in his lessons because they want to erase the memories of 2012, when only Colorado allowed more points per game in the Football Bowl Subdivision than the Herd's 43.08.
Marshall allowed 41 points or more in seven of its 12 games last season, neutralizing the progress made by its offense, which sat among the FBS' top scoring units. The final straw came in the final game. Marshall couldn't hold East Carolina back from a last-second game-tying drive and lost to the Pirates in double overtime, 65-59.
The next day, then-defensive coordinator Chris Rippon resigned. Heater, who spent the previous two seasons as Temple's defensive coordinator, was hired in January.
On his arrival, he found a defense disappointed in last season's results and ready for change.
"They just wanted to be told how to do it and be led," Heater said. "They've been in a great mindset. They've been responsive. From the moment I got here, they've been great. There's not much resistance. They were ready to buy. You just have to make sure what you're selling is right.
"That's yet to be determined, if what we're selling is good enough to get them where we say we're going to get them," he added. "They've certainly bought what we're selling."
It didn't take senior corner Derrick Thomas very long to buy in. He was sold after the first day, when he realized how similar Heater was to his old defensive coordinator at Penn State, Tom Bradley.
"They've got that same fiery personality on the field," Thomas said, "but both can be the coolest, calmest guys off the field and help you with anything, coach you up on anything, explain anything to you the best they can without a bunch of yelling."
The yelling stays on the field, Heater said, because the meeting room is for instruction, for correction. And that's done best through conversation rather than ranting and raving. If the defense is making the same mistakes over and over, that might be the time for raised voices. But in Heater's mind, the meeting room is the classroom.
"In there, you've got to teach and hopefully it can transfer and they're executing at a high level on the field," he said. "There is, in my mind, two distinctive arenas, if you will."
Heater has brought some new ideas to the Marshall defense. The scheme often relies heavily on a nickel package, trading a linebacker for a third corner in order to better match up with the spread sets the Herd finds in Conference USA. He's also consolidated the alignment calls into a couple of words. Where, in the past, players would look to the sidelines for a laundry list of calls, they now get the same information in a much shorter timeframe.
"The offenses make it difficult, they're so fast," Heater said. "So you better find a word that's all-inclusive, that includes the coverage, includes the alignment, includes all of it."
Thomas said that move to simplicity has made been a major benefit.
"I definitely feel it out here, but more than feel it, I see it," he said. "We watch film after every practice, so I see it. It's such a big difference."
The Herd will see how much of a difference Heater has made starting Saturday night. He feels that, seeing the strides Marshall's defense has made since he arrived, it's on the right track.
"We think we're going to compete," Heater said. "The kids are really good. I don't know what perceptions people have, but I'd take these kids as a group any place I've been."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.