Marshall football: Thundering Herd running backs look to add power to game
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- If the running backs on Marshall's football team didn't know it coming into this spring, Coach Doc Holliday made it evident in his words after the first day of practice.
On third-and-1, the Thundering Herd must be able to line up and plow forward for that one yard.
Marshall's high-octane offense will still be the norm, but there will be times the team needs to slow things down.
That's the task for the running backs this spring, to add a little power running to their startling speed. And while they're doing that, they'll be jockeying for the top spots on the depth chart, spots they all showed they were worthy of last year.
With three freshmen - Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson - and redshirt junior Essray Taliaferro, the Herd jumped from ninth in Conference USA at 120.1 rushing yards per game to fourth in the conference at 169.2 yards per game. And all four demonstrated the skill to be a featured back.
Grooms was C-USA's freshman of the year after rushing for 737 yards and eight touchdowns, with a single-game high of 155 yards against Houston. Butler was second on the team with 500 yards and a single-game high of 166 against Rice. Watson ran for a single-game high of 84 yards against Rice and rushed for 380 yards last season. Taliaferro finished with 251 yards, but had a single-game high of 130 yards against East Carolina.
Butler said every running back knows the other is good, so there's no relaxing in the spring or beyond.
"It makes everyone work harder from the weight room to the field to the classroom," he said. "It makes everyone work hard because they know at any time their spot can get taken."
New running backs coach Thomas Brown, a former freshman all-SEC running back at Georgia, hasn't been with his crew long, but he knew before he even got there that he had a talented one on his hands.
He said that, while at Tennessee-Chattanooga, he watched film on the group and walked away very impressed.
"They're very explosive, very naturally gifted," Brown said. "We have to get cleaned up on fundamentals and the effort and the finish is probably the biggest thing. As a player, I went hard every single day. I was relentless in my pursuit of trying to be great and I'm trying to transfer that to these guys."
The group also must tap into its more physical side, despite not carrying a ton of weight on their frames. None of the four running backs weigh 200 pounds, with Watson the closest at 198. Grooms is listed at 168 pounds, while Butler is listed at 173 and Taliaferro is listed at 184.
But Holliday isn't concerned with what he sees on the scale. He's concerned with what he sees when his backs run between the tackles.
"They're a lot more physical than what you think they are," Holliday said. "That weight room's been good for them. They'll stick it up in there and get a yard if they have to. I'm not concerned with how short they are. I'm concerned with how strong and physical they are."
The backs say they all feel stronger with the arrival of new strength and conditioning coach Scott Sinclair.
They not only weigh more for the most part, but they can lift more weight, and they already can feel the difference on the football field.
"I can't really say I feel the weight, but I feel the power," Grooms said. "That's one thing coming into this year that I want to progress in. I wanted to be a little more powerful. As time keeps coming I just feel stronger and stronger."
The Herd's running game played a significant part in the offense's meteoric rise up the Football Bowl Subdivision rankings, but much of the focus was on quarterback and Conference USA MVP Rakeem Cato and the Marshall passing game. Marshall's running backs are ready to add more balance to the equation and grind out the tough yards when necessary.
"When it comes to third and 1, all of us feel like we can get the first down," Grooms said. "We just know to get the ball and attack every time."
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.