Lovell fighting to regain left guard spot
HUNTINGTON - Sebastien Johansson has been running with the first team at left guard at Marshall's preseason camp this month, but the gap between him and Josh Lovell hasn't been much.
Offensive line coach Alex Mirabal confirmed as much, giving both his seal of approval.
"We feel right now we have two left guards," Mirabal said. "Well, a lot of people say if you have two left guards you have none, and that's not true. We have two and we think we have two good ones, and there's a great competition and respect between Josh and Sebastien Johansson.
"Right now [if] we play our first game, they'll split the game. That's how we feel about them."
Which is gratifying to Lovell, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound junior from Gloucester, Va. He started about half the Thundering Herd's games last season, but fell behind Johansson in spring drills.
Without giving details, Lovell confirmed that he landed in the coaches' doghouse.
"It sucked at first. I kind of dug myself a hole in the spring, did a few stupid things and got punished for it, and got demoted," Lovell said. "I'm still trying to fight my way back up from it now. Just doing everything I can to get back in there, and that's all I want to do right now."
The other side of that is the rise of Johansson, the full-bearded sophomore from Sweden who is listed at 6-4, 284. By all accounts, something clicked almost overnight with "Swede," both on the field and in the weight room.
"He's a whole different player," Lovell said. "A year ago he was still acting like he was just a freshman, still learning a lot of stuff, learning the plays, they weren't really clicking with him. And now, he easily understands everything, he's playing at a high level, is doing really, really well for us. A completely different player from last year to this year."
Lovell hasn't changed in one aspect - his 310-pound frame is rock-solid, with strength to match. Mirabal calls him one of the very strongest on the team, along with defensive tackle James Rouse. And yes, the two have squared off quite a bit.
Lovell has had some bad luck with an injury this month, returning Monday from a weekend on the sidelines. Mirabal said the missed reps haven't been held against him, nor his absence from last weekend's officiated scrimmage.
"He could have gone in that scrimmage, but there was no reason to," Mirabal said. "But now he's full go. He's ready to go. Looking forward to him having a physical presence."
When talking to players on defense, it's unanimous: defensive coordinator Chuck Heater has instilled a positive yet more intense atmosphere in what was one of the nation's more porous defenses last year.
Coach Doc Holliday witnessed Heater's work firsthand from 2005-07 at Florida and marveled at his ability to get the most out of his players. Holliday dropped a somewhat surprising observation on the subject recently.
"Number one, he loves the game. His whole world's coaching football," Holliday said of Heater. "I've never seen anybody who develops players like he does. He's a great teacher.
"That year we played for the national championship, we played with guys who shouldn't have been playing in the SEC, and they played at such a high level we were able to win it."
Heater feels he is developing players already of Conference USA caliber, or higher. He thought that would be the case when he arrived.
"I have great trust and confidence in Doc," Heater said. "He's a legendary coach, a legendary recruiter. I made the assumption when I made the decision to come here that he had good players.
"I don't know what perceptions people have, but I'd take these kids as a group. I'd take those guys any place I've been; there's no pushback at all. ... all the assumptions I've had have exceeded in some regard."
Cornerback Derrick Thomas is hoping for an improved season, and big years from fellow Penn State expatriates Devon "Moo Moo" Smith and Shawney Kersey. He is delighted to see Smith at full speed - emphasis on speed.
While Smith redshirted last season with a foot injury, Thomas knew what to expect after the healing. He's not sure anybody else here did.
"Man, I've been telling people [to] wait," Thomas said. "When he gets on the field, watch - don't let his size fool you, because he's going across the middle to catch the ball. He's not scared of anything; man makes crazy catches."
And there's the thought of Smith playing outside at the "X" position, the latest experiment. For a man who prides himself on man-to-man coverage, Thomas doesn't want much of that.
"A lot of corners ain't going to catch him," Thomas said. "All they got to do is say, 'set' and go throw the ball as far as they can, he'll get it."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.