Marshall football: Changes help spark turnaround by MU defense
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It was obvious to everyone that watched it in 2012 that the Marshall football team's defense needed a transformation. But who would have imagined one so drastic?
In one offseason, the Thundering Herd changed its defensive makeup in a way that allowed it to catapult up the national rankings, changing from liability to building block for a team trying to climb the Conference USA ladder. New faces on the coaching staff, new faces in the lineup and a new attitude all around have contributed to that growth and the players feel they're not done.
Senior defensive end Alex Bazzie has two very quick answers for the keys to the defenses improvement.
"Chuck Heater and Scott Sinclair," he said.
Defensive coordinator Heater and strength and conditioning Coach Sinclair arrived in the offseason and brought with them a new mindset they impressed upon the players nearly from the beginning. It first came from Sinclair, who, as strength and conditioning coach, has more access to the players than the rest of the staff.
Bazzie said the first steps, both physically and mentally, came in those offseason training sessions.
"Before we got into the scheme of things, we started strengthening ourselves," Bazzie said. "That's where our mindset, our toughness, started to come from. Coach Sinclair came in, observed for about a week, and after about a week, he kind of put his foot down.
"He made them think, 'I'm a winner,' even if they never thought of themselves as winner," he added. "He was changing minds."
Sinclair's role is an important, if underrated one, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. Even during the times where the rest of the staff aren't allowed contact with the players, Sinclair and his staff are there to provide structure that some players hadn't experienced until they first stepped foot on a college campus.
The strength and conditioning staff works through the offseason to get the players' minds and bodies prepared for the regular season grind between August and December. And Holliday said Sinclair, who came to Marshall from the University of Central Florida, is fantastic at it.
"He's a tremendous, tremendous man," Holliday said. "He's got great character. What he preaches to these kids every day, he's done a tremendous job with them, not only physically, but mentally. They've bought in to what he tells them."
Then Heater and his staff took the reins. The players understood who was in charge with Heater at the front of the meeting room. And with his resume - including stops at Notre Dame, Ohio State and Florida - the players listened. He not only continued building attitudes, he rebuilt the defensive scheme, shifting to a base nickel package and employing more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. His calls became simpler, letting one or two words convey messages during games that it used to take six to deliver.
Senior corner Monterius Lovett said Heater and his defensive staff have made so many things easier for the players, and they're able to respond with better performances.
"Everybody's just taking coaching from Coach Heater," Lovett said. "He's a great coach. He calls the right plays and puts us in the right positions. Everyone's out there playing hard and doing their jobs and just doing what they have to do."
An infusion of new talent helped as well. Newcomers like Arnold Blackmon and Gary Thompson at defensive end, Neville Hewitt at linebacker and Corey Tindal in the secondary all have made significant contributions in the first four games. Other players like linebacker Evan McKelvey, safety A.J. Leggett and defensive lineman James Rouse are now healthy and able to play at 100 percent.
"What's good is to see those young kids come along," Holliday said. "We had some freshmen come in and play an awful lot (at Virginia Tech) Saturday. Josh Brown played a lot. Arnold Blackmon, not a freshman but a new guy, played a lot. And Gary Thompson played an awful lot. Those guys are providing depth along with (tackle Jarquez Samuel), who is playing well and Rouse, who is playing extremely well."
Marshall finished last season ranked 94th in passing yards (253.5 allowed per game), 105th in rushing yards (203.25 allowed per game), 103rd in total yards (456.8 allowed per game) and 123rd in scoring (43.1 points allowed per game). Through four games this season, the Herd defense is 32nd in passing (184.5 ypg), 17th in rushing (100.5 ypg), tied for 15th in total defense (285.0 ypg) and 33rd in scoring (19.3 ppg).
Holliday believes there's still room to grow. Lovett agrees, and said both the unit's winning attitude and more selfless attitude - much less finger-pointing and caring about individual stats - should help it improve. The defense understands the errors it's made in the first four games, like Ohio's 11-for-19 third-down conversion rate and Virginia Tech's 3-for-4 fourth-down conversion rate. The players feel eliminating those will go a long way.
"We're feeling very confident about the defense," Lovett said. "If we take away the mistakes that we made, we'll be great. The defense is good right now, but we'll be great if we take away those mistakes."
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.