HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Alex Bazzie was making no apologies for coming overdressed to the Marshall football team's Friday special teams meeting.
That was the first day the Thundering Herd could practice in full pads, and the senior defensive end made sure everyone knew it. So there, 90 minutes before the Herd would take the Joan C. Edwards Stadium turf, Bazzie sat fully armored, helmet, mouthpiece and all. He did it to send a message both for and from his fellow defensive players.
"I wanted the guys to know, look man, it's football," Bazzie said. "You don't want to have on just a helmet. Nobody wants to play football with just a helmet. It's full pads. Let's go get after it today."
It's an eagerness that comes from wanting to rehabilitate the reputation of a defense that took its lumps in 2012. It's an eagerness the entire defense showed during Marshall's first preseason scrimmage Saturday. It was the first step of many, but the defense's ball-hawking, pressure-packed performance seemed to be a step in the right direction.
Marshall's was a defense full of missteps last season, and those missteps led to some pretty depressing games. The Herd finished 101st out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 456.58 yards allowed per game. Only Colorado finished worse than Marshall's 43.08 points allowed per game. The struggles culminated in the team's regular-season finale at East Carolina. Needing a win to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Marshall gave up 65 points in a double-overtime loss.
As bad as that loss felt, Bazzie said stewing over it for months until the 2013 season began felt worse.
"The realization of last year's performance made us hungry this year," Bazzie said. "It wasn't good enough. It wasn't good enough at all. And our ranking as a defense had us sick. To sit through that all offseason hurt really bad."
Enter new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, who players say has brought a new energy to the group, along with some new ways to stop opposing offenses. Among them was a nickel package the Herd has relied upon heavily during the spring and preseason. With the growing prevalence of spread offenses, especially in Conference USA, Heater said the best way to defend it man-to-man is to add a nickelback into the mix.
"Otherwise, you play man coverage with a linebacker against the slot," Heater said. "Imagine putting a linebacker on Tommy Shuler, or a safety, which at times isn't a great matchup. It allows you to bring a guy who's a corner in to match up.
"When you're playing zone, it probably doesn't matter," he continued. "But if you're playing man, you're trying to get a better matchup. And when that foundation is built, then you can kind of build from there."
It's a foundation Heater can build in part because he has healthy materials to work with. Lost in the struggles of last year's defense was its struggle to stay off the injury list.
Blue-chip defensive back A.J. Leggett missed last season after shoulder surgery, and fellow defensive back Darryl Roberts missed 2012 recovering from a broken ankle. Linebacker Evan McKelvey was lost three games into the season with an ACL tear. Injuries kept defensive lineman James Rouse out of all but three games in the past two seasons.