Derek Redd: Marshall's defensive improvement impressive
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The MVP of the first half of Marshall's football season isn't easy to choose, and it has nothing to do with the fact there are no names on the backs of the jerseys.
Actually, the MVP isn't even wearing a jersey. But he's down there, clad in green. And over the crowd noise, you should be able to pick out the time-weathered voice that 60-year-old coaches often have.
For the Herd, "MVP" doesn't stand for "Most Valuable Player." "Most Valuable Person" is more fitting.
Chuck Heater, take a bow.
The first-year defensive coordinator's worth to Marshall's reversed fortunes is summed up with one number, provided this week by CoachingSearch.com's Pete Roussel. Roussel charted the 12 most improved scoring defenses in college football this season, and the Herd's defense is the runaway No. 1.
Marshall's defense is allowing almost 24.8 fewer points per game this season compared to last season, shrinking its average from 43.1 points to 18.3 points. The next closest competitor is the Arizona defense led by former West Virginia University defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, allowing 15.5 fewer points per game.
So with Heater guiding the defense, there is a four-score improvement with this season's unit. And if that one number isn't enough, here are a few more to cement his status.
Last season, Marshall was 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in points allowed per game. It was 101st in total defense, allowing 456.6 yards per game, and 105th in rushing defense, allowing 203.1 yards per game. This season, the Herd is 10th in total defense (301.5 ypg), tied with Oklahoma State for 14th in scoring defense and 23rd in rushing defense (121.2 ypg).
Opponents are converting on third down more than 14 percent less often (30.68 percent this season compared to 44.75 percent last season). The Herd has gained 13 turnovers in six games in 2013 after needing 12 games in 2012 to gain 18. Not surprisingly, the Herd is 4-2 after six games this year, as opposed to starting 2-4 last year. (And, not surprisingly, the Herd gave up at least 45 points in four of those 2012 games.)
So how has Heater done it? He added a fifth defensive back to the base defense and removed a lot of the jargon that bogged down the 2012 group. He wasn't afraid to throw a "radar" defense look at teams, where there are no down defensive linemen and plenty of confused offensive linemen. And the players all have mentioned the attitude he's instilled in the group and a love for teaching the game that hasn't waned even in his 37th season as a coach.
Now, Heater's had some help from the players on the field, especially newcomers like defensive back Corey Tindal and linebacker Neville Hewitt, plus guys like defensive tackle James Rouse and corner Darryl Roberts, who have returned from injury. But many of the players on Marshall's defensive depth chart were on the field last season. They're just playing better.
Take linebacker Jermaine Holmes for instance. In 2012, his physical gifts - speed and athleticism encased in a 5-foot-11, 243-pound frame - were obvious. He admitted, however, that the defensive scheme often led him to hesitate. There is no such hesitation this season, and that's led to even more impressive performances.
In a season where Marshall's offensive numbers are merely really good rather than otherworldly, the Herd's defense has allowed for easy wins against some teams and the ability to stay in striking distance versus all of them. For that, Heater deserves a ton of the credit.
Maybe, if the Herd players earn the reward of their names on their backs for a bowl game, Heater can have his name sewn on the back of his pullover. Right now, three letters would be enough to show his value.
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.