Marshall notebook: Herd running backs flip sessions
HUNTINGTON - The "split" in Marshall's split-squad practices this week has remained almost constant, but there were notable changes.
Yes, Gunnar Holcombe returned to the morning to work alongside fellow freshman Blake Frohnapfel at quarterback. But the suspense came over the swap of speedy running backs Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms, who switched between the morning and afternoon shifts.
Butler had been working in the mornings, carving up a much younger defense. Grooms was running against the veterans, and not making such a splash.
Grooms took the field Wednesday morning, and romped. On one run in team drills, the defense appeared helpless and he gained the corner, then cut against the grain. On a day when shoulder pads were used for the first time, he carried them quite nicely.
"He's got great speed, great vision and he gave a glimpse of what he can do," said Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday. "It was fun to see that in pads; I thought he was better in pads than he was in shorts. And that's a compliment to him; that's when it counts."
In the afternoon, Butler reeled off a few nifty runs against the older defensive alignment, but he put a couple of balls on the FieldTurf. Rest assured, he is learning the coaches' "if you don't hold onto the ball, you don't play" mantra in a hurry.
"They'll be fine," Holliday said. "It's their first time in pads, they're excited, and our defense does a good job of stripping it, too."
Freshman safety D.J. Hunter found some unforeseen competition this summer when former Boston College players Domenick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha arrived. But Hunter stands to benefit in many ways.
"One thing that these two guys give D.J. Hunter is it takes a little pressure off of him," said safeties coach Todd Hartley. "He doesn't feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. He's still playing a lot of reps, but he doesn't have to make all the plays.
"It gives us some flexibility; D.J. Hunter might be a candidate you can move to the nickel because's so athletic and so versatile. His work ethic is unbelievable, he's quicker than he has ever been, and he lifts the whole damn weight room."
Oh, yeah, the nickel back. Last year's fifth defensive back was usually Phillip Warren, who was booted out of the program after an off-season incident at an off-campus bar.
The added competition at safety seems to have lit a bigger spark under junior Zach Dunston, known best for his pivotal punt block in the bowl game against Florida International. He has gotten downright combative, pummeling C.J. Crawford on Tuesday - a day before the team donned shoulder pads.
Things got so testy between Dunston and receiver Demetrius Evans, Holliday had the two battle it out in the ring, so to speak. Teammates were formally gathered around the two combatants as they blocked each other for two reps. Dunston dominated the first battle; Evans held his ground on the second.
"About time; he's been here for three years," Holliday said of Dunston's aggression. "It's time for that to happen. When I first got here, I couldn't get them to fight. Now, you've got one every now and then, which is good.
"We talk about there being nowhere to hide in this program - if you're not tough, you can't survive. Zach's come a long way, he has."
In the place-kicking derby, 5-foot-8 Justin Haig is showing the consistency needed to fend off 6-1 Trent Martin. Wednesday morning, Haig hit everything he tried, out to 47 yards.
"I didn't want to bring it up. I didn't want to jinx him," Holliday joked. "The one thing I noticed that I haven't seen, I thought the ball got off his foot and got up, which is encouraging."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.