Marshall football: Herd has plethora of speed in backfield
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Marshall running backs coach JaJuan Seider has one heck of a 4x100-meter relay team already formed in his head.
All of them are running backs under his guidance - Essray Taliaferro, Steward Butler, Travon Van and Kevin Grooms.
"Grooms will always have the last leg," he said. "Stew's the second fastest, so he'll have the second leg. Taliaferro has the first leg and Travon would have the third leg."
And that's not even counting human wrecking ball Tron Martinez and redshirt freshman Remi Watson, who led the offense with 78 yards on eight carries in Saturday's first scrimmage of camp.
One could say Seider has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to speed in his backfield. But he's anything but embarrassed.
"Heck no," he said. "The thing that makes it fun is that when each one of those guys is in the game, you have an opportunity for a big play."
The coaching staff is looking for big plays to jolt an offense that struggled at times last season. With the speed the Thundering Herd has collected in the backfield, that may be where they come from. The only question now might be how many carries each running back gets.
Right now, Butler and Grooms have taken many of the carries in practice, since Van (right hip) and Martinez (knee) continue to recover from offseason surgeries. That's no problem, Van said. Coaches know what both he and Martinez can do. The two combined for 1,200 yards and six touchdowns in 2011, averaging a hair under four yards a carry.
They're Marshall's leading returning rushers by a mile and this preseason camp can allow coaches to get a good look at their new weapons.
"We look at it like a comfort zone," Van said. "We know we need all of us to play. Like Coach Seider said, we're only as good as our weakest link. And if our weakest link is as good as the rest of us, we're fine."
Van loves getting a look at the new guys, too, because he's never been on a team with so much speed in the backfield.
The Herd's running backs were pretty quick last year. Seider said Van's 40-yard-dash time has been clocked at 4.4 seconds, while Taliaferro has been clocked at 4.38 and 4.39 and Martinez has been clocked at 4.5.
Now insert Watson, whose 4.5 speed (Seider thinks he could run a 4.4) helped him average 9.7 yards a carry against the defense at Saturday's scrimmage.
Then toss in the world-class speed of Butler (4.3 seconds) and Grooms (4.27 seconds).
Put that all together, and it could be a lineup full of home-run hitters, Seider said.
"When guys have speed like that, they can take a bad play and make it a good play," he said.
"So there's no bad call. Sometimes you call to the wrong hole, they make one cut and you're saying, 'no, no, no' and the next thing you know, you're saying, 'yes, yes, yes.'"
Seider said he tries not to over-coach the running backs and allow them to maximize their natural talents.
What helps, he added, was that the crew is made of football players with track speed, not sprinters trying to play football.
Grooms said the advice Seider offers helps a great deal.
"Coach told us to hit the hole and accelerate," he said. "Every time you get the ball and see a crease, use your speed. Don't try to cut in. Use your speed. With our speed, it's tough to get us in open space. When we see it, we just go."
The Thundering Herd would love for that backfield speed boost to translate into better offensive numbers. Marshall's 120.08 rushing yards per game in 2011 ranked 96th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Their nine rushing touchdowns left them tied for 117th.
But there are only so many carries to go around in a season and more carries for one back means fewer for another. Seider said coaches will try to find every way they can to get as much speed on the field as possible.
"That's a hard job right now," Seider said. "It's a hard job, but it's a great problem to have. I'd rather have too much talent than no talent. We'll do some stuff to get in two backs. We're crazy as coaches if we don't do that."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.