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Herd's 'Big Bird' needs to get down at safety

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -Free safety Taj Letman has been tagged with the nickname "Big Bird" by new Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, a label that just might stick.

It's not every day you get a 6-foot-3 athlete in the back end - shoot, he could have been moved to linebacker last year, for all anybody knows.

But height, by itself, is not the reason Letman earned the Sesame Street label. Let's put it this way: He is not too tall to play the position, but can't play it at 6-3 all the time. At times, he plays very upright.

That may fly in junior college, but not at this level.

"Is it sticking?" Heater asked about the nickname.

Sounds like it, listening to head coach Doc Holliday.

"He's got a lot of ability; he's got to learn to play with [proper] pad level," Holliday said Saturday after MU's workout. "That was the one thing we tried to work on - he looked like Big Bird out there. He plays up too high, and when he plays up that high he can't transition.

"We wanted him to focus today on getting his pad level down, because he can. He can play low, he can play with his pads down. He's a talented guy that covers a lot of area, once he learns to play with technique and fundamentals. I'm anxious to see the film because I think he was a lot better."

Letman, a native of Elberton, Ga., who signed in December out of Holmes (Miss.) Community College, generated a lot of video clips, good and bad. In a safety unit with near-total turnover, he is playing on the first unit alongside D.J. Hunter, the safety-turned-linebacker-turned-safety.

Whether that pairing sticks into and through August remains to be seen. A.J. Leggett and Andre Scott, both highly touted redshirt freshmen, are working on the second unit in red "no contact" jerseys, as they are still healing from surgery. The good thing: They can work in one-on-one and seven-on-seven drills.

But they can't hit this spring, and the Hunter-Letman duo can. Hunter's physical nature is not in dispute, but Letman could have laid the biggest hit of the spring in Saturday's practice.

Late in the morning, the Thundering Herd went into full-contact scrimmaging, and a pass play sent the ball to Dameon Garrett. Perpetually seeking to get on the field, the junior-to-be turned upfield and was greeted by No. 30.

Fortunately for Garrett, Letman held up. The 200 or so at Joan C. Edwards Stadium oohed, knowing the contact could have been cataclysmically violent.

"Oh my gosh, I could have killed him," Letman said. "But Coach says, 'Man, we don't need to kill our guys.' I could have killed him. He'd be lying there asleep."

With his midyear signing, Letman was tossed into MU's strength and conditioning program right away, and he said the results have been immediate. In junior college, emphasis on weight training varies widely.

As Letman relates, there is another aspect to physical development, one that is rarely mentioned.

"I was fortunate to have a pretty good strength and conditioning [program]," he said. "[My juco coach] gave me a lot of stuff that we do here, but it's not the same with the nutrition. Nowhere near."

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  • At the quarterback position, newcomer Kevin Anderson was excused from practice to go to his senior prom back at his Boca Raton, Fla.

    Really, he was.

    Remember, Anderson is an early high school graduate who was able to enroll in Marshall in January. So, yes, this is his final prom.

    With that, the remaining three scholarship quarterbacks took all the reps Saturday. Rakeem Cato had a big throw or two - surprise, surprise - including a slant to Craig Wilkins for a touchdown and a few good tosses to Tommy Shuler.

    He shed his shoulder pads before the end, yielding the field to Blake Frohnapfel and Gunnar Holcombe. It was Holcombe, the redshirted freshman, who threw the pass of the day.

    Operating from about the 23-yard line of the defense, he fired a missile between defenders into the hands of a lunging Chris Alston Jr. for the touchdown.

    It would have made a highlight reel, yes, but it was a throw fraught with danger.

    "Probably wasn't the best read, but I saw him and just tried to fit it in a window and it ended up working out," Holcombe said. "I guess I had a little confidence there."

    The throw showed that Holcombe doesn't lack velocity, but that quality can work against you. With Anderson arriving, this is an important time for Holcombe to learn when to ease off the gas and to keep his adrenaline in check.

    "Just try to stay calm and poised and not try to rush," he said. "I know the reads, but sometimes getting out there, it's moving so fast. I've got to slow down a little bit."

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  • While Holcombe made the throw of the day, Shuler turned in the play of the day.

    Starting from about midfield, the play began routinely enough as he took a Cato throw and picked up perhaps 10 yards up the left sideline. But he planted his left foot and reversed field, using the entire width of the field.

    With Cato leading the way (trust this: he was neither hitting nor being hit), Shuler nearly scored.

    "I didn't know he could run that fast," Holliday joked. "[Receivers] Coach [Mike] Furrey has been working a little bit with his speed development."

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  • The update on linebacker Kent Turene, who injured his ankle Thursday: He stands to miss most of the rest of spring, if not all.

    "Anytime you get an ankle [injury], it's going to be a couple of weeks or so. We'll see; he'll be fine," Holliday said.

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  • Saturday's workout was MU's sixth of 15, with three more scheduled in the upcoming week. Start times are 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and next Saturday's 9:15 a.m. practice will be an officiated scrimmage, with Big Green members and season-ticket holders invited. In the latter case, a renewal application is sufficient for entry.

    Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

     

     


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