After a deplorable showing by Marshall football’s defense in 2012, Coach Holliday made a decision to turn on the heater—literally.
Chuck Heater took the helm of the defense in January 2013 in hopes of turning around a depleted unit that seemingly found a way to lose more games than it won as the Herd finished 5-7 and did not qualify for a bowl game.
In only one year at the controls, Heater’s defense has made a miraculous turnaround.
After surrendering more total points than it scored during the 2012 season, Marshall’s defense caught everyone by surprise in 2013. The Herd allowed only 22.9 points per game, down from a daunting 43.1 points per game it allowed in 2012, and took a much need load off the offense’s shoulders.
However, the 37-year veteran coach wants his team to trim even more.
“Last season, 18 or better got you into the top 10,” Heater said. “If we can get to 18, we’re good.”
While not perfect, last season the defense was pretty good by many standards. Its 20.2 point differential marked the biggest scoring defense jump in major college football since 1997 to ’98 when Central Michigan improved by 20.5 points per game.
Having the right players on the field certainly helped with that too.
During the 2012 season, Marshall lost linebackers Evan McKelvey and Billy Mitchell to injuries forcing DJ Hunter and Devin Arrington to accept new roles on the field with the only remaining starting linebacker being Jermaine Holmes leaving the Herd’s secondary—mostly its safeties—to pick up the slack.
Safeties Dominick LeGrande and Okechukw Okoroha tallied 240 of the team’s 1073 total tackles (22.4 percent) as offenses consistently busted deep into the defensive coverage, more importantly, its last line of defense.
The end result from the Herd’s injury woes, undersized players playing out of position and opposing offensives thrashing the Herd’s defense on a weekly basis.
No wonder Marshall gave up 43-plus points a game.
So why the drastic change in 2013? Herd linebacker coach Adam Fuller summed it up in two words—Doc Holliday.
“The reason things changed was because of the great recruiting of Doc Holliday,” Fuller said. “A great recruiting effort by Doc Holliday of getting the right guys to do the job. Bringing in Neville Hewitt and McKelvey was big. What Hewitt brought to the table was a real effort type player with great skill.”
That may be one of the understatements of the year.
McKelvey in his first full year with Marshall led the team in tackles with 97 including five for loss. The then junior also picked off a pass and forced a fumble.
Talk about making a statement.
“I’m not sure there was a linebacker in CUSA that played better than he did,” added Fuller. “He was a kid that we could rely on at all points to make a bunch of plays.”
But it was not all on McKelvey. He had plenty of back-up and all he had to do was look to his right or left to find fellow linebackers Hewitt and Holmes.
Hewitt tallied 85 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss while Holmes recorded 84 tackles—8.5 for loss—and 2 sacks. Altogether, last season’s Herd linebackers accounted for 266 of the team’s 1104 (24.1 percent) total tackles. That is 266 plays that never made its way into the Herd secondary—a place teams consistently stayed.
But with the front seven of Marshall’s defense holding down the offensive attack, it was finally the secondary that reaped the benefits. Last season, Marshall’s secondary had 10 of the teams 18 total interceptions. That is one more than the entire team compiled in 2012.
Even more, with an abundance of true corners and safeties, Heater was allotted the chance to move redshirt junior D.J. Hunter, and his 50 tackles last season, back to his natural position of linebacker. More importantly, it moves Hunter closer to the ball.
“We felt like getting him closer to the line would help him,” said Heater. “He’s a very talented player so we organized ourselves in a way to get him out there and take advantage of his skill set.”
Hunter welcomed the move in hopes of bettering the team.
“I played as a linebacker in high school so that it’s a natural position for me,” Hunter said. “I’m aggressive and like to be around the ball.”
Herd redshirt sophomore A.J. Leggett spent last season with Hunter playing along him in the secondary and likes knowing what the guy in front of him has to offer.
“With D.J. moving up to linebacker it lets me fly around and just play fast,” Leggett said.
But with all the pieces finally seeming like they are falling into place for the Herd’s defense, there is still one question that has left to be answered. Why can’t the defense stop teams on the road?
Last season, Marshall outscored teams 317-79 at the Joan. However, those numbers changed drastically with the Herd giving up 205 points when it traveled away from Huntington. That is an increase of 38.5 percent.
While Heater certain wants his team to strive for greatness, he certainly understands change does not happen overnight.
“We took a step last year but certainly wasn’t perfect,” explained Heater. “We have to get to a point where we give our team an opportunity to win every game. If the defense plays well, no matter what happens in between, you have a chance to win the game.”
“I’ve been around those kinds of defenses and I hope that’s what we become,” Heater said. “We have to be consistent and the team knows it can count on us.”
After coaching on three national championship teams, Heater should know all about “those kinds of defenses.” Now can he find a way to inject that consistency into the Herd?