From protege to mentor
HUNTINGTON - In his third year in the Marshall football program, Chris Jasperse is increasingly successful at juggling all the tasks of the center position.
This fall, he has added one more challenge: Mentoring a rookie right out of high school.
Jasperse, a 6-foot-4, 283-pound sophomore, isn't that far from being a protégé himself. In August 2010, he was a walk-on just out of Page High School in Greensboro, N.C., and had much to learn.
He has picked up a scholarship and a lot else along the way, as have the rest of his line mates. As the Thundering Herd's preseason camp hit the midway point Wednesday, coaches continued to rave about how far the offensive line has come.
"I keep bringing that up, but I see out there guys who are well coached, who are going extremely hard," said Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday. "And there are reasons the running backs are running the way they are: It's because of those guys up front."
That line is still young. Jasperse and junior right tackle Garrett Scott started 13 games apiece last year, enough to lead the unit in career starts. Even John Bruhin, the sixth-year man at right guard, has only 12 career starts - all last year, as well.
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg says Jasperse is playing the role of veteran quite nicely.
"Chris is a very, very smart player," Legg said. "He's a guy, in all honesty, probably by the middle of his true freshman year, we could have played him if we had to. But we didn't have to, so we held him and gave him an opportunity to win the starting job in the spring, and he did, and he played well last year."
And Jasperse played through no small amount of pain. Perpetually leaning over to snap a football puts an uncommon stress on one's back, and he was feeling it by the bowl game. He played through it and considered surgery.
That's when Jasperse consulted his mentor, former center Bruhin. From the adjacent right guard spot, Bruhin served as Jasperse's on-field guide through the 2011 season, helping sort out all those calls a center must master.
But this time, Bruhin shared his considerable experience with back pain. After all, the native of Powell, Tenn., is playing his sixth year because of season-ending back surgeries.
Jasperse underwent surgery himself on Jan. 25.
"When I had the decision to make, back surgery or not, I saw [Bruhin], that he could come back, he could play through it, and I was like, 'If he did it, I can do it,' " Jasperse said. "And he's in there every day, and he's more beat up than any guy we've got on the whole team - he's got arms, legs, backs [hurting], everything, but comes in there and still plays every play."
Jasperse recovered quickly, played a full spring and has taken all first-team snaps this month. He's also taken on the tutelage of freshman Cameron Dees, the 6-2, 280-pound native of Seffner, Fla.
Dees said he was one of 11 major-college signees out of Armwood High, the Florida Class 6A champion last season. Herd coaches hold that program in high regard, saying Dees was well prepared for the next step.
Still, Dees said he wasn't quite ready for what faced him this month.
"No matter how sophisticated your offense is in high school, there's still a huge learning curve when you get to I-A ball," he said. "The calls, checks and IDs here are way harder than any other high school offense that I've ever seen. So it's a big adjustment."
Jasperse can relate.
"You know, it's mind-boggling," he said. "You're up there and you've got to make calls, and then the whole defense walks up. You're like, 'Uh, what do I call? Umm ...' And you really don't know what to do, and you've got people yelling and you're trying to snap the ball. You've really got to lock in and pay attention."
Jasperse hosted Dees during his official visit last year, the weekend of the Herd's 26-20 win over eventual Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi. Dees was so impressed, he committed that night at dinner. In the Herd's "big brother" program, Jasperse is guiding Dees through his first days in college football, on and off the field.
On the field, Dees is still learning to direct blocking for the Herd's up-tempo offense, against an ever-diversifying defense. He has run with the second unit all camp, and coaches want him to prove he belongs there.
"We've got four guys, but the guy who has the best chance of being the backup is the young guy," Legg said. "So we're pushing him this week to find out, 'Are we right or are we wrong?' I don't know. We'll see.
"He's a smart kid, a tough kid. He comes from a good high school program with a very good high school coach. There's a lot of similarities in the things they did in their offense that we do in our offense. The language is different. The tempo is different. The guys they're facing on defense are different.
"But he's got a lot of ability. Can he put all the stuff he knows when he's sitting at a meeting room, and all the stuff he can do fundamentally do in individual drills, put it all together when the bullets are flying? That's what we need to find out.
"He's doing better than expected, but at the same time he's not where we need him to be, if he's going to be that guy."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.