Marshall football: Taliaferro earning respect
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- For most of last season, you could find running back Essray Taliaferro's name on the Marshall football roster, just not on the two-deep.
As the Thundering Herd begins game-week preparations for its season opener against Miami University, the redshirt senior finds his name among the four team captains for that contest.
Marshall will release a depth chart today, so it's still not known exactly where Taliaferro stands in that regard. But he knows for sure that when the first coin is flipped at 7 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network, he'll be at the 50-yard line.
"It's an honor to be seen in that manner," Taliaferro said. "He didn't just surprise the team. He surprised me, also. I'm happy to see that hard work pays off."
The best day of Taliaferro's college career ended on a very sour note. But it was that bad moment which spurred an entire offseason of hard work that has pushed him back into the offensive mix.
When Marshall Coach Doc Holliday unveiled the first depth chart of 2012, Taliaferro was listed as the No. 2 running back behind Travon Van. That order didn't last long. Van was moved to the secondary by the fourth game and a trio of freshmen - Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson - had leapfrogged Taliaferro in the lineup. Grooms played well enough to win Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors.
But in the Herd's regular season finale against East Carolina, injuries had moved Taliaferro to starter, and despite carrying the ball just 31 times in the first 11 games, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound Ashburn, Va., native responded with 130 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
His final carry, however, haunted him for the entire offseason. In the second overtime against the Pirates, he fumbled the ball away after a 5-yard run. ECU scored on the next possession, won the game, 65-59, and knocked the Herd out of bowl contention.
Taliaferro didn't want that play to be fans' lasting memory of him. He wanted a chance at redemption, which meant a climb back up the depth chart. So he attacked offseason training harder than ever, through the spring, mat drills, summer workouts and preseason camp.
"That fumble wasn't a blessing, but a blessing in disguise, kind of," Taliaferro said. "It made me drive myself more to be better.
"That gave me extra motivation. Everything from what I eat to if I go out, my mentality to everything, especially since this is my last year. There ain't no coming back, no 'next year, hopefully this happens.' This is my last go-around, so I try to put myself in the best situation to succeed, whether it's food or watching film. There's no cutting reps."
Opportunity also presented itself in the form of Grooms' sprained ankle, suffered during the first week of camp. That gave Taliaferro more carries during practice and he proved himself worthy of the workload. Through most of the open practice sessions, Taliaferro lined up with the first-team offense.
His teammates have taken notice. Quarterback Rakeem Cato appreciates Taliaferro's ability to run hard on every carry, take a big hit, pop back up and do it again.
"'Tally' has done just a phenomenal job this camp, every day just progressing and progressing and getting better," Cato said, "whether it's a run play or a pass play, whether he's blocking or running the ball. He just took it to another notch this camp. Whatever he's getting, he deserves it."
Defensive end Alex Bazzie said he's seen a consistency from his fellow redshirt senior that he hadn't seen before. Those 27 carries against ECU were more than his total carries in either the 2010 or 2011 season.
"We always respected his game," he said. "We always respected his speed and his power. But after a while, when it started to become consistent, that's when we were like, wow, this guy's somebody special."
It will be tough to keep a 100-percent healthy Grooms off the field. It will be tough to keep a spot near the top of the depth chart with talented young backs like Grooms, Butler and Watson to fight off every practice. But Taliaferro is proud that he's gained a new measure of respect from his coaches and teammates.
"Always in the back of my head, I felt that, when the opportunity was given, I could make plays for this team and help give us a chance to win," he said.
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.