Herd brings blitz
HUNTINGTON -- At the beginning of spring football practice, Marshall University's defense looked a bit lost and a step slow as players grew accustomed to the scheme of new coordinator Chuck Heater.
But last week, the defense flipped the switch and actually proved to be dominant against the offense in its base packages during the practice sessions and even Saturday's scrimmage situations when the offense was forced to drive the length of the field.
The week was a great first step of progress for a defense that was mired near the bottom of NCAA Division I last season.
Now, the Thundering Herd defense is taking the next step.
Tuesday's practice featured the first look of the Herd defense implementing some of its different blitz packages under Heater.
Perhaps the best sign was that the defense was not the unit that looked confused in the first on-field use of the new blitz and pressure looks.
"Defensively, we started getting into a little different package there at times," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said.
"Offense, there was a little confusion at times with some blitz pick-ups and some things, which that happens in the spring. The defense did install a few more things today."
During Tuesday's practice session, the linebackers looked increasingly solid as a unit. Billy Mitchell made a finger-tip interception of a Rakeem Cato pass over the middle after Cato released the ball following a rush on the edge.
And Stefan Houston continued his strong first spring with the Herd, being seen all over the field making plays in the session.
One thing Holliday wanted to reiterate on Tuesday was that it hasn't been a confidence-building exercise for the defense this spring after the less-than-par effort last season.
They've been going toe-to-toe with the sixth-ranked offense in the nation from 2012.
"The only place we've helped the defense all spring is we changed tempos and hadn't been going fast all the time, so the defense could get their feet in the ground and learn how to play," Holliday said. "The last two practices, that hasn't been the case. It's not like we've changed our offense."
For Heater, these practice sessions are critical as players get used to his way of defensive football, which has been very successful no matter where he has gone.
One major change that fans will see in Heater's defense is that defensive backs will be up and pressuring receivers, instead of giving cushion in coverage as has been seen in the past.
In Saturday's scrimmage, the Herd defense got called for three or four pass interference penalties, but Heater wasn't upset in the least. He said technique with hands is fixable, but he was happy to see his corners being physical and pressuring the receivers.
It's all part of the maturation and learning process for the defense under Heater, which has taken a trial-by-fire approach this spring.
For Heater, it might only be 15 practices spread over a month, but it's one of the most important months of the year.
This spring has served as a crash course, which will set the tone for the offseason film room as the Herd looks to get back to a playmaking, dominant defense.
"These are very important days to get our system in so they can at least understand enough to where they can mentally process it through the summer and hopefully come back in the fall and get it rolling," Heater said.
There's been no one happier to see the progress of the defense than Holliday, who even commented that he'd like to see the offense get the spark the defense has and make some plays of their own.
While he wants his offense to continue their success of 2012, it doesn't upset him much to see the defense take the reigns of the spring right now.
"Everywhere I've ever been where we've had a pretty solid football team, the defense dominated the offense in the spring," Holliday said. "When they didn't, we had issues. Hopefully, that's the case this spring."
Marshall gets back to its implementation of its defense on Thursday with a 3:30 p.m. practice at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
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