Marshall football: Defensive backs will be challenged
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- When Gardner-Webb wide receiver Kenny Cook takes the field for the Runnin' Bulldogs, he wants to be a player quarterbacks can notice and count on.
"I'm just trying to be a leader on the offense," the redshirt junior said. "I'm one of the older guys. And I'm trying to just be a security blanket for our quarterback, so whenever he comes my way, I'm just trying to make a play."
That happens often. According to Gardner-Webb's athletic department, 42 of the 57 passes Cook has caught with the Bulldogs have gone for either first downs or touchdowns, a 73.6 percent clip. That means Gardner-Webb quarterback Lucas Beatty won't be the only person searching the field for Cook. Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater and his revitalized Thundering Herd defense will be doing the same.
When Cook and the Bulldogs visit Marshall at Joan C. Edwards Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, he'll likely be a target for both Gardner-Webb's offense and the Herd's defense.
From what Cook has been able to see of Marshall's defense, he considers it a big, athletic bunch whose defensive backs have no qualms lining up one-on-one.
"Marshall has a good defense and a good secondary," Cook said. "The defensive line gets off the ball really fast. They play a lot of man-to-man coverage and have good DBs. They can play man-to-man all game. We just have to go in and stick to our game plan and hope everything works out.
"They've got a lot of athletes and people who can run on the field," he added. "It'll be hard to work with our pass game, but hopefully our run game will work out if they do come out in that pass defense, and they can open some things up."
Cook has been known to open things up on offensive himself. His 13.9 yards per catch last season - his first after transferring from Garden City (Kan.) Community College - was the top returning average in the Big South Conference.
"I look at myself as one of the deep threats," he said. "We've got a lot of shifty receivers. I want to be a receiver that can go deep and go up and get the ball.
"I sort of think of it like a rebound in basketball," Cook added. "He'll just put it up and I look at it like a rebound, just go up and get the ball."
He finished last season with 666 yards and seven touchdowns on 48 catches, then added to that total last week with nine catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-21 win over Furman. Cook's second touchdown was the game winner, a 5-yard strike from Beatty with 9:49 left in the fourth.
"Kenny's very important to us," Gardner-Webb Coach Carroll McCray said. "He's a player we can turn to and try to get some matchups. I think, defensively, Marshall does a really good job matching your formations and matching your personnel groupings. I think they'll make sure they'll know where Kenny is. At the same time, it'll be our job to try to make sure we put him in sports to get a matchup or two that will favor us."
As much as the Herd coaches have mentioned staying focused against Football Championship Subdivision opponents - seven FCS schools upset Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in college football's opening week - the Bulldogs noticed it, too. But Cook said they won't stick any special meaning to it, nor will they get nervous in preparing for their FBS foe in Marshall.
"We're just going to treat it like a regular game," Cook said. "We're just going to come out, try to execute our game plan and see how things go from there. We go in every game expecting to win. We're just going to play hard, stick our game plan and hopefully it'll work out."
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.