New players step up for Herd
HUNTINGTON -- It was "Step-Up Saturday" for Marshall University's football team in their final Saturday scrimmage prior to the Green-White game.
Many players currently in reserve roles put forth their best effort Saturday in an attempt to display their ability and catch the coaches' eyes as the Thundering Herd wrapped up its fourth week of spring practice with a morning session.
"I thought there was good individual effort out there," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. "I thought some guys made some nice plays, but I'm anxious to watch the film later on and see exactly what we got."
The secondary was especially impressive, even without the services of cornerback Derrick Thomas who missed the day because of a finger issue. Several players stepped up in his absence -- a good sign for a team which was limited to three cornerbacks for the bulk of 2012.
Keith Baxter came on a corner blitz to sack Gunnar Holcombe on a series, then picked Holcombe off on the first play of his next drive and returned it 84 yards for a score.
A.J. Leggett, who missed the 2012 season because of a shoulder injury, stepped in front of a Blake Frohnapfel pass to wide receiver Jack Gammon for an interception.
Safety Corie Wilson also picked off Frohnapfel and Monterious Lovett added another interception to Holcombe's tally late in the session.
The mistakes were forced by a defense that consistently got into the face of the quarterbacks and forced them to throw early or take sacks. In all, the defense had seven sacks.
"Going into spring ball, we felt to get this thing -- the defense -- where it needs to be, we had to get more pressure on the quarterback," Holliday said.
Linebackers Jermaine Holmes and Stefan Houston continued to lead the defensive resurgence from their positions in the middle. Holmes had 10 tackles and a sack while Houston added nine tackles.
Perhaps the best news for the defense was that it consistently forced the first-team offense into third-and-long situations. The first-team offense had seven third-downs with only one being under six yards to go. That lone play was a third-and-4 which Steward Butler took up the middle 44 yards for a score.
In addition to Butler's run, the offense also had its share of bright spots.
Several of the less-experienced receivers stepped their games up on Saturday when their number was called -- guys like Chris Alston, tight end Stefone Grace and Gammon.
Alston had a pair of big-play catches -- one a 95-yard reception on a bomb from Frohnapfel and the other being a 10-yard touchdown pass from Holcombe, who drilled the ball into a small window to where only Alston could catch it on a slant.
In the course of two plays, Grace and Gammon both got the offensive sideline sprinting over to cheer them on.
With Holcombe at quarterback, Grace took a swing pass out before barreling over safety Shawn Samuels to draw oohs and ahhs from spectators.
On the next play, Gammon took a screen pass, juked inside to elude one defender then broke two tackles to get into the end zone. The first players to greet the walk-on in the end zone were quarterback Rakeem Cato and wide receiver Tommy Shuler, who sprinted 50 yards to celebrate with Gammon.
"If I had to choose, all of them would play," Cato said following the scrimmage. "I'd rotate all of them in. From Shuler all the way to Jack, all of them would play."
Holliday said the nature of the scrimmage was to see how some of those younger players would fare once they were forced into action. Shuler and some of the returning starters saw limited action to get the younger guys some reps.
"We know that Tommy Shuler can go play," Holliday said. "We have to find out about (DeAndre) Reaves and Alston and some of those other guys to see if we can trust them to get them in a game when we open up in the fall."
Blake Frohnapfel finished the day 15-of-22 for 220 yards with the bomb to Alston and a 30-yard touchdown pass to brother Eric Frohnapfel over the middle. He also had the two interceptions.
Cato was 14-of-21 for 150 yards, but did not have a touchdown. More importantly, though, he also did not have a turnover.
Holcombe saw increased action and finished 8-of-17 for 79 yards and the score to Alston to go with his two interceptions.
Kevin Anderson completed his only pass of the scrimmage -- a beautiful out route to Grace that resulted in an 11-yard touchdown between two defenders.
Butler led the running backs with 63 yards and two scores, but the defense limited the overall rushing attack to 97 yards on 44 rushes. That total does include lost yardage on sacks.
Marshall returns to the practice field for its final padded practice at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday.
The team will be in shorts Thursday in preparation for Saturday's Green-White game, which will get under way at 2 p.m.
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