Marshall football: Thundering Herd retooling defense
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Marshall might be the best in Conference USA in throwing the football, but it's not the only one that's good at it.
That's led the Thundering Herd to retool its defense in what's becoming even more of a pass-happy league.
The Herd has moved to a five-defensive-back lineup. It's a way to add athleticism to the field and counteract C-USA's penchant for putting the ball in the air. With some new additions to the secondary's roster, the group said they're quickly learning how to handle life with a more crowded defensive backfield.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said the move almost was out of necessity.
Of the 14 teams in the 2013 edition of Conference USA, seven were in the top half of the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012 in passing yards per game.
Three of them - top-ranked Marshall, third-ranked Louisiana Tech and the 19th-ranked UAB - were in the top 20.
As C-USA offenses become more wide open, Holliday said defenses need to have enough players in the secondary to combat that.
"We talked all last year that it's no secret that, in this league - with the teams you have and the offenses you play - you've got to be very athletic on that back end," he said, "and you've got to have guys that can play in that nickel spot and still have two safeties who can cover and make plays in space. That's what it's coming to.
"It's a space game. Look around our league. With the exception of two or three teams, it's very similar to us. You've got to be able to match up and play those guys in space. For the most part, I think our guys have gotten a lot better doing that."
Thundering Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater's mission since he arrived in January has been to lead Marshall's defense into this new scheme.
It essentially puts three corners and two safeties on the field at the same time, removing a linebacker from the 11.
Holliday has said that strong safety D.J. Hunter will play like a linebacker at some points, and Heater said getting another corner into the lineup is essential for the five-man secondary to work.
"If you're going to be a man coverage team, which we are in part, and they put a third receiver in there, you can't cover him with a linebacker and you're at risk if you cover him with a safety," Heater said. "So you've got to put a corner-type player in there so when you do play man, you've got the right matchups."
Right now, that extra corner in the starting lineup is Corey Tindal, a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder from Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.
An all-Broward County defensive back as a senior at Boyd Anderson High School, Tindal originally signed with Florida International before spending a semester at Atlanta Sports Academy, enrolling at Marshall in January 2012 and sitting out a year as an academic non-qualifier. Holliday said Tindal's liveliness on the field has made an immediate difference to the defense.
"I like the energy he brings to the defense, number one," Holliday said. "He loves football. He just likes to play. He's a guy that needs to be out there because he likes to play and because of the excitement he brings to the game."
Tindal has a lot of energy to release, evident in the three pass breakups he recorded in the Herd's April 13 scrimmage. He said he's overjoyed that he finally can return to the football field after nearly two years away and he's happy he's able to contribute as quickly as he has.
"I just show I can come make tackles, make plays and bring more speed to the defense," Tindal said. "I think Coach Heater likes that, that I come attack the ball, take good angles and make good things happen out there."
Tindal isn't the only newcomer making waves in Marshall's secondary. Taj Letman, a 6-3, 183-pound transfer from Holmes Community College, has worked with both the first- and second-team defenses this spring. He had four tackles, including one for a loss, in Saturday's scrimmage and has shown a knack for making the big hit.
He likes Marshall's five-defensive back scheme and said there's enough depth and talent in the Herd's secondary lineup to rotate players in and out with no drop-off. He said it's been a process in learning the new defense, but that everyone seems to be picking it up pretty quickly.
"To be honest, we're head over heels with how fast we're learning this stuff," he said. "It's not us out there messing up all the time. It's just a blown coverage here or there or a blown assignment. I think everyone's bought into it. We want to balance it out a bit more around here."
The players admit they have a bit longer to go to become the defense they need to be. Both offense and defense landed some pretty good blows against each other in Saturday's scrimmage. Marshall's offense rolled up 546 yards, 449 through the air, and five touchdowns in 105 plays. The defense struck back with four interceptions, seven sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and four pass breakups.
Marshall's defenders say they want to earn the level of respect the offense enjoys around college football. They want to play their part in a winning program, after a 2012 where the defense ranked near the bottom of the FBS in points and yards allowed.
"A team is as strong as its defense," Tindal said. "A defense has to be strong. I feel a defense has to be the soul of the team if you want to go far. We have to take it to the next level with this defense."
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.