Assessing the Herd's progress
HUNTINGTON -- As the Green and White game concluded Saturday and fans rushed the field for the 30-minute autograph session, it marked the official end of Marshall Thundering Herd spring football practice.
It was only one month of 12 in the year, but it might have been one of the most important months of the Doc Holliday coaching era as several new assistant coaches got to implement their plans and expectations.
Following is a rundown on spring practice with grades for particular areas of emphasis. Special teams were extremely limited, so they were not graded.
OFFENSE (Overall: B-)
QUARTERBACKS (B-): Conference USA Player of the Year Rakeem Cato was brilliant at times, but there were times he looked like he wasn't on the same page with receivers and he occasionally let the aggravation get to him.
In his words, there were days when "the juice" simply wasn't there. At his position, he has to be the leader and has to bring that juice everyday. If he lets his emotions get to him and shut him down mentally, the rest of the team will, too. It's an aspect he's improving on, but it got to him a few times throughout spring.
Blake Frohnapfel is a very solid quarterback and almost gives the Herd a 1A-1B look at the position. Frohnapfel's biggest adjustment needs to come in his quarterback clock, meaning he needs to feel the pressure off the edge -- especially off the blind side -- and get rid of the ball in his read a bit quicker.
Ball security continues to be a point of emphasis for the quarterbacks. Last year, when the Herd turned the ball over, it normally went for points the other way and those mistakes were the difference in at least three wins.
Against the pressure defense shown by new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, turnovers came more frequently this spring. That was partly the result of a better, play-making defense that Cato and Frohnapfel both said helped them improve.
"It was all tighter windows to throw into, bracket coverages on the slot guys and making it hard to read the coverage," Cato said. "Coach Heater did a great job with that and the offense had to step up to the challenge."
RUNNING BACKS (B): The most impressive thing about this spring session was seeing Steward Butler transform his game.
Butler went from a guy who tried to use his burst to get to the outside to a back who used his burst to get on top of the second level before the defense could react. In Saturday's scrimmage, Butler had six runs of exactly six yards and a 20-yard touchdown run when the defense was caught in a blitz.
Those six-yard runs are the key to Marshall's offensive balance because they put the Herd in 2nd-and-short and 3rd-and-short situations, which open the playbook and make the offense that much more dangerous.
In addition to Butler's emergence, Kevin Grooms continued to show his speed and big-play burst. He made a Barry Sanders-like cut for a 60-plus yard touchdown during the opening week of practice, which was one of the top highlights from the month-long sessions.
With those big runs, though, Grooms has a tendency to bounce outside too much, which sometimes causes the offense to get into long-yardage situations. He has to learn to be just as happy with a 4-yard run to keep the Herd in sequence.
Remi Watson's biggest gain was growing into a mentally-tough running back. There were three or four different occasions when Watson got a bit banged up, but he fought through pain and stayed in for drills.
It was a stark contrast to last fall when he would run out of bounds to finish runs without contact -- something coaches noted at the time.
WIDE RECEIVERS (B+): The additions of Devon Smith and Shawney Kersey definitely add lots to the unit, but it was the improved play of those in behind Tommy Shuler and Smith in the slot that was the most impressive.
DeAndre Reaves started to turn the corner from running back playing wide receiver to wide receiver with running back skills and Chris Alston showed improved hands and crisper route-running.
On the outside, Kersey showed a dramatic improvement in confidence and ability from his first practice to his final day on Saturday. There's no question about his ability to break open behind defenders, but he must improve his hands and learn to be in the moment and make the play in a big situation.
Along with Kersey, Demetrius Evans and Craig Wilkins continued to improve, but consistency on the outside will have to improve for the Herd to pose more of a deep threat.
OFFENSIVE LINE (C): Several returnees have the experience for Marshall's offense to continue to be one of the nation's best.
The key is more on the mental side -- getting the right defensive reads, not blowing blocking assignments, picking up blitzes, etc.
That is an area that suffered as the defense implemented more of a package late in the spring.
Once again, credit the defense for its improvement, but there were times in the final two weeks when linebackers and defensive linemen were coming through untouched for tackles in the backfield.
New offensive line coach Alex Mirabal is a technician and much of the spring was spent on technique and footwork. As guys grow more accustomed to the new techniques and footwork, the calls and reads will become easier.
The good news is that several players, like Sebastian Johansson, stepped into the limelight and performed well with guys such as starting tackle Jordan Jeffries, and interior offensive lineman Cam Dees on the mend all spring.
TIGHT ENDS (B+): With Gator Hoskins out, there were legitimately only three tight ends in camp -- Eric Frohnapfel, Joe Woodrum and Stefone Grace, who is learning the position.
Under new position coach Todd Hartley, who came over from the secondary, those three were also attempting to transition to more of an H-back (Hybrid) style of tight end.
Frohnapfel continued to display the hands and durability to make catches in traffic while absorbing the big hit, but his biggest gains this spring were in learning how to be a tougher blocker for the run game.
Woodrum is a physical specimen who likes to take on the blocker role and he continues to work on his hands and becoming a bigger threat in the passing game.
Perhaps the biggest improvement was by Grace, who showed great agility and hands in traffic to make plays. He'll have to put on some weight -- as will Frohnapfel -- but his long-term reach as a tight end is visible.
DEFENSE (Overall: A-)
DEFENSIVE LINE (B): If the spring had ended two weeks ago, the grade for the defensive line would've likely been a C or C-minus.
That's how much improvement was shown in the last two weeks.
Players like Joe Massaquoi, Marcus Gilchrist and Armonze Daniel started getting into the backfield and disrupting the offensive flow on a more consistent basis.
Other guys who were highly-heralded, such as Ken Smith, RaShawde Myers and Jarquez Samuel started to build up to the expectations they came in with while last year's starters -- Jeremiah Taylor, Alex Bazzie and Brandon Sparrow -- continued to make plays.
The unit still needs to establish a solidified group who will be the starters/playmakers along the front. No one really took the reigns as the pressure leader off the edge, a la Vinny Curry or Albert McClellan.
LINEBACKERS (A-): Jermaine Holmes' is back from last season and certainly looks ready to be formidable in the middle of the defense.
One of the most eye-opening players on the field on either side of the ball was Stefan Houston, who showed great lateral speed to cut off the outside run and the strength to fight off blocks. He displayed solid coverage skills when matched up with a tight end or slot receiver.
Derek Mitchell also made a solid transition to the Sam linebacker spot and earned praise from both Holliday and Cato.
Perhaps the only drawback for the linebackers was losing Kent Turene to injury early on in camp. Prior to his injury, Turene certainly proved himself as a playmaker, but he'll have plenty of catching up to do in the opening month of fall practice.
SECONDARY (A): What a difference a year makes for the secondary.
The same unit that went through the majority of 2012 with only three cornerbacks total now has playmakers at several positions, which will allow Heater some flexibility in scheme.
Corey Tindal was the most impressive member of the secondary and drew praise from defensive and offensive teammates for his leadership.
Taj Letman opened eyes with his ability at free safety while D.J. Hunter returned to his natural position at strong safety and quickly got acclimated.
Other corners who impressed were A.J. Leggett and Darryl Roberts, who made their return after missing 2012. They joined Derrick Thomas and Keith Baxter to provide playmakers while lined up on receivers. Monterius Lovett also returns.
COACHING (B+): The Marshall coaching staff features six brand-new members and two returning assistants who switched the positions they emphasize. It isn't often a team can have so much turnover and say they've actually improved overall, but the 2013 Herd might be the exception to the rule.
It appears the Herd hit a home run with Heater, who brings 30-plus years experience to the sidelines while adding in a scheme that fits the attributes of his players -- a ball-hawking, pressure-type defense with a lot of attitude.
Kudos to Holliday for also bringing in Sean Cronin to the defensive line. Cronin fully understands the philosophies of his father-in-law (Heater) and joins J.C. Price to coach up a defensive line that was a weak spot in 2012. With Cronin and Price splitting the D-line duties, young players get more one-on-one attention which will vastly improve the unit.
Adam Fuller is also an up-and-coming coach that the Herd was smart to land after he saw lots of success at Chattanooga.
Offensively, the additions of Thomas Brown and Mike Furrey are also bona fide moves. Skill players have dreams of making it to the league and at Marshall, those players get to learn from a pair of guys who have walked the walk.
Neither Brown nor Furrey are going to get caught up in superstar egos, either. They are going to make their players work.
Offensive line coach Alex Mirabal is a technician who is truly a student of the game. To hear him speak about the intricacies of offensive line play is a treat and he conveys that type of energy to players.
Todd Hartley also moves to the offensive side of the ball with the tight ends. Bill Legg takes over the quarterbacks, furthering his communication with those in charge of executing his offensive scheme.
OVERALL (B+): As a whole, the spring was a success. Other than Turene, there were no major injuries to hinder the team and the foundation for the future was built in the month of April -- especially on defense.
Holliday got everything he wanted -- and needed -- out of the spring to send the Herd into summer workouts with a positive vibe.
Possibly the best news is that the team hasn't proven anything yet, which should still leave them hungry and motivated to work in the summer.
However, the pieces are in place -- offense, defense and coaching -- for the Herd to have a strong 2013 season.
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