Marshall football: Secondary no longer a concern
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The Marshall football team's secondary is an equal-opportunity playmaking unit, junior corner Darryl Roberts said.
"Overall, I feel like everybody is mostly equal," he said. "Everybody's got a lot of picks. Overall, as a variety of defensive backs, we're all at the same level as far as progressing."
That progress has been substantial - a matter of "light years" according to Thundering Herd Coach Doc Holliday. A combination of new coaching, new faces (with some healthier old ones) and a renewed commitment to sure tackling has transformed the group from one of the issues of a poor defense to one of the main components of a good one.
The Herd (9-4) will look to the group as its last line of defense one more time Friday, when it faces Maryland in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md. (2:30 p.m., ESPN).
Holliday and players alike credit defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chuck Heater for the defensive backs' jump in productivity. Senior corner Monterius Lovett admits he was skeptical at first that Heater could juggle all those jobs.
"When he first got here and they said he was going to be the defensive coordinator and our position coach and the safeties coach, I was like, I don't know, that's going to be a whole lot," he said. "At first I thought it would be too much, but I thought he handled it well. In the meeting rooms, he talked to us and explained things and on the field, when we go through the drills, he's coached us well."
Ask Heater about that success in his first year, and he starts naming his roster, many of whom are in their first year in the program or returning from injury.
"(Lovett has) played his best year of football and he wasn't perfectly healthy last year," Heater said. "He's had a really good year. We got (Roberts) back. Taj Letman and A.J. (Leggett) have alternated at free safety, Tiquan (Lang) has come in and then you have Corey Tindal. The corners have played pretty well and when the corner play is good, that usually can cement your secondary."
Last year's secondary was vastly different than the one seen in 2013. In 2012, Marshall employed three corners - Lovett, Keith Baxter and Penn State transfer Derrick Thomas - while Roberts and Leggett took medical redshirts for ankle and shoulder injuries, respectively. The safety spots were manned by a pair of Boston College graduate transfers, Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha.
Fast-forward to this year and while Baxter sat the year with a shoulder injury, Roberts returned, as did Leggett, who switched from corner to safety. D.J. Hunter, a freshman All-American at linebacker, moved back to his normal strong safety spot. Letman came from junior college, while Lang came from Lowndes High School in Georgia straight into the rotation. And after sitting a season as an academic non-qualifier, Tindal started immediately as a nickel back, the Herd's new base defense under Heater and a way to better combat the growing number of spread offenses Marshall faces.
The Herd has nearly doubled its interception total from last year, leaping from nine in 2012 to 17 in 2013. Six members of the secondary have at least one. Pass breakups jumped from 38 last season to 57 this year, the 10th best total in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The big play, one of the biggest problems Marshall's defense faced last year, is less of a problem in 2013. Plays of 30 yards or more (25 in 2012 to 19 in 2013), 40 yards or more (15 to 10) and 50 yards or more (seven to four) all are down this year.
Surer tackling has been the key there, and a point of emphasis for Heater this year. Tackling drills are a staple and if it's not done right, it's done over and over again.
"You've got to tackle," Heater said. "What you do on the back end, at the end of the day, they're going to make you tackle. And if you don't tackle, then you have a really bad play. They've done a good job of that and most games, they've tackled very well."
Holliday agrees with the importance of proper tackling in the secondary, especially considering the landscape of Conference USA.
"In the games we're playing and the teams we have to play in this conference, you've got to be able to make plays in space," he said. "This is a space game and a perimeter game. You've got to be able to make plays, one-on-one, in space, or else you've got major problems."
The other coaches in C-USA have taken notice as well. Roberts, Lovett and Tindal earned honorable mention on the all-C-USA team. Tindal and Leggett were named to the conference's all-freshman team and Tindal shared C-USA freshman of the year honors with Tulane linebacker Nico Marley.
Marshall's defense is one of, if not the most improved in the FBS, averaging nearly 90 fewer yards and more than 20 fewer points per game than in 2012. Holliday said the Herd's new-look secondary had plenty to do with that, and that its improvement was all encompassing.
"They're just better players," Holliday said. "They make plays. They're better tacklers. They're better in space. They're better defenders."
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.