CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- OFTEN, I have thrown out 21 points as the number a defense can yield and be regarded as a very good unit in Conference USA. Or in all of major-college football, for that matter.
Year after year, the numbers bear that out. But Marshall's new defensive coordinator, Chuck Heater, sees the evidence not just in stats, but up close on the gridiron.
His last two coaching stops were Florida and Temple, but the coaching veteran became well-versed in the ways of C-USA, at least in the 2005-12 alignment.
"The number one defense in this league was 21 points, I think, or 22, the top two teams," he said after Saturday's practice. "That's the number. You get that and you have the two best teams, Central Florida and Tulsa.
"That puts you in the top 20, probably, in the country."
Heater was nitpickingly close with the numbers. League champion Tulsa yielded 23.5 points over eight C-USA games, with East Division champion UCF first at 21.6. Their overall numbers over 14 games didn't inflate much, 23.6 and 22.1, respectively. UCF ranked 27th in the nation, Tulsa 35th.
But Heater is not inheriting either unit. Instead, he is trying to plug the holes in the most porous defense in Thundering Herd history, one that started the season by giving up 69 to West Virginia and finished by giving up 65 to East Carolina.
The final, scoreboard-stressing toll was 517 points yielded, 106 more than Mark Snyder's duct-taped defense of 2007. The overall average of 43.1 finished ahead of Colorado and nobody else.
After scoring 59 points but losing in double overtime at ECU, a distraught coach Doc Holliday remarked, "We've got to play some defense around here." Exit Chris Rippon (now at Columbia) and enter Heater, who probably has faced challenges of all degrees in his 37 years of coaching.
For now, Heater's defense is still trying to decipher Rakeem Cato and Conference USA's top-ranked offense this spring. In the limited full-contact action Saturday, that offense reigned supreme, with the defense flashing brilliance here and there.
Much like in 2012.
In trying to reverse the trend, Heater is eschewing sophistication, at least for the spring. He wants to eliminate confusion at the snap, which led to disastrous long plays in 2012.
"We're trying to eliminate that, in terms of getting lined up," he said. "We knew that was a problem, for whatever reason, so we worked hard to make it clean for them, that we're not having those problems. I'm sure there are some of those, especially when our offense is going at full speed."
Yes, full speed, 90-plays-a-game speed. Coordinator Bill Legg isn't huddling this spring, for sure.
But Marshall isn't the only "NASCAR" offense around, and not the only team that tries to stretch defenses over the entire 531/3-yard width of the field. Heater remarked that until recent years, he never dreamed he would care about a back judge signaling that the defense was allowed to substitute. He never figured it would be so tough to get a fresh defensive lineman on the field.
Freshness may be a premium on the D-line. For instance, I figure Sean Cronin was assigned to specialize on defensive ends for a reason - Jeremiah Taylor and Alex Bazzie must become better pass-rushers, and don't ask me who will back them up. Legitimately, anyway.
Perhaps tackles coach J.C. Price, who returned from last year, can develop a solid four-tackle rotation despite the departure of Marques Aiken. At the temporarily depleted linebacker spot, the most interesting item is the battle between Cortez Carter and Jermaine Holmes. I'm mildly surprised Carter has run with the "ones" so far.