Back against the wall
HUNTINGTON -- As Essray Taliaferro lines up in the Marshall University backfield during camp, he knows that the competition at running back is extremely tough.
Taliaferro, a senior, is in a battle for playing time with three young players -- all of which got experience last season.
There's Kevin Grooms, who is currently out nursing an injury, but possesses the speed and quick cuts that made him the 2012 Conference USA Freshman of the Year.
There's Steward Butler, who like Grooms provides speed and shiftiness with a bit of grit for a smaller back once he punches it inside.
And there's Remi Watson, who has the size to bang inside and grind out tough yards, but also the speed to get to the edge if opportunity presents itself.
Yet, it has been Taliaferro running with the first unit since Grooms' ankle injury in the first days of camp.
So what is Taliaferro's niche?
"I'm a fighter," Taliaferro said. "I'm at my best when my back is against the wall. If things aren't going my way, I find a way to push through and persevere."
Taliaferro isn't the biggest back (5-foot-9, 183 pounds) on Marshall's roster. He's not the fastest, either.
But that mental toughness and his demeanor about the daily grind of being a college football player is something that has caught the eye of Marshall running backs coach Thomas Brown.
It's much of the same mindset that Brown brought when he joined the Herd staff in the spring.
"Don't expect anything to be given to you because I'm not going to give you anything," Brown said. "I'm going to give you what you earn. I don't play favorites. I have a good relationship with all my guys, but when we come on the field, it's your job to do what we ask as a staff and give 100 percent every single day.
"I think he's doing a good job. He's had a much-better attitude than in the spring and he's working a lot harder than in the spring. It's his last go-round, and I think he realizes this is a do-or-die deal and he's trying to make sure he doesn't leave with regrets."
Perhaps there is a little bit of symmetry between the path that Taliaferro is taking and that which Brown also underwent when he was a running back for the University of Georgia.
Ironically, Brown was also down the depth chart to start his freshman season, but broke out in a big way against Marshall, rushing for 81 yards and 18 carries in Georgia's 13-3 win over the Herd.
It was opportunity that once given, Brown seized and took full advantage of. After a successful career at Georgia, Brown was drafted in the sixth round by the Atlanta Falcons.
All it took was one opportunity -- one opening of the door -- for Brown to make his name.
It is a path that Taliaferro plans on also taking after being mired down the depth chart behind the aforementioned trio of freshmen in 2012.
"When he (Brown) first got here, he said the slate is clean," Taliaferro said. "What you did in the past, that doesn't mean anything. The top guys that perform from spring and fall camp are going to be the guys that play. That gave me extra incentive to go even harder."
And that is why Taliaferro has seen increased productivity as of late -- something Brown noted and said is exactly what he's looking for out of his backs.
"Obviously, all those guys want to be on the field and want the ball in their hands, but this isn't park ball," Brown said. "This is Division I collegiate football and it's kind of survival of the fittest. The best guy that gives us the opportunity to win games is going to play.
"You find out very quickly who wants to be successful. Everyone says from day one that they want to be a starter, but you have to continue to prove yourself every day. Those who can control that mindset and attitude will prove themselves in the long run and the process weeds itself out."
In a day and time where skill players are flashy, flamboyant and looking to shine in the spotlight, Taliaferro is a quiet, humble guy.
But the work he's put in during preparation for the 2013 season and the subsequent repetitions he's getting as a result are saying plenty.
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