Herd defense up to challenge in scrimmage
HUNTINGTON - Approximately 52 weeks ago, Marshall had its first football scrimmage, and the ravaging of the Thundering Herd's defense began.
Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, the few hundred Big Green-donating, season-ticket buying patrons saw that unit fight back against one of the most potent offenses of the 2012 college season.
Only one touchdown was scored, none by the first- or second-string offenses. All four quarterbacks had one pass picked off, there were four tag "sacks" and the offense gained an aggregate 446 yards on 86 plays - a substandard 5.19 per play.
And that was inflated by big plays late, such as No. 3 QB Gunnar Holcombe's 51-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Josh Knight.
It was a signal that Chuck Heater might be getting somewhere as the new defensive coordinator. But Heater threw a caution flag on the performance.
"Offense is a little down. They've got four of their top receivers not even practicing, so we don't want to get too far over the top of our skis," he said. "I'm sure if they had those guys back, they'd be executing at a higher level."
That group is led by Tommy Shuler, whose foot is still healing from surgery. "X" receiver Davonte Allen watched again, "Z" receiver Craig Wilkins was sidelined and jet-quick slot receiver Devon Smith caught Rakeem Cato's first pass and was not heard from again.
In the backfield, Kevin Grooms remained out, leaving the bulk of the running to Essray Taliaferro and Steward Butler.
Still, the much-deeper defense is showing it wants to avenge its season-long beatdown of last year.
"Way, way much better," said defensive end Alex Bazzie. "Since we've got a coach named Heater, I like to say 'we've got the heat going.' A lot of guys feeling that vibe, kind of feeling it within themselves.
"So they're coming out here with a lot of energy, and they're just running around. You know, we're just all having fun."
"At this point in camp, if the defense isn't a little ahead of the offense, than we've got problems," said coach Doc Holliday. "A year ago, I couldn't say that and we had problems. Now, I think they're where they need to be and they've got to continue to get better.
"The offense, we're wanting to see some things and experiment. We'll be fine."
Offensively, the Herd rushed for 153 yards on 37 attempts, led by Butler's 40 yards on six carries. Running with the second unit, Butler struck for the day's first big offensive play, a 21-yard run.
The second-unit defense answered, forcing Blake Frohnapfel into a fourth-and-5, a play in which safety A.J. Leggett picked off a pass to Eric Frohnapfel.
Holcombe returned, but threw an interception to walk-on safety Mark Shaver - the Huntington native's third of the week. A few possessions later, D.J. Hunter victimized Cato.
At that point, the quarterbacks and their offense generated some production. With passes of 20 and 25 yards, Cato drove to the defense's 3-yard line, where the eight-play script ended the series.
The next play brought the day's offensive highlight - and the big hit, as well. Blake Frohnapfel hit tight end Devon Johnson for a 19-yard pass, punctuated by the 240-pounder's trucking of safety Corie Wilson.
"Devon Johnson, I said a year ago, is a good player and we've got to find a way to get him involved in our offense," Holliday said. "He's a special kid and he's a special player."
Twelve different players caught passes, led by Demetrius Evans, who has stepped away from competition at the outside receiving spots to fill the void in the slot left by Shuler's absence.
Leggett led the defense with seven tackles and that interception, while promising defensive end Gary Thompson had five tackles and two "sacks." Neville Hewitt also had five tackles, with five players credited with four.
Freshman Aaron Plantt had the other interception, and it pumped up his fellow defenders just as much as the other picks.
"If you can come on our sideline, seeing from last year to this year, you can tell the attitude of the defense changed," said defensive end Jeremiah Taylor. "When somebody makes a play, you see the whole sideline up and cheering, rooting them on.
"It's a trickle-down effect. Once it trickles down from the leaders, the whole defensive is going."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.