Herd hopes revamped defense gains traction
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series breaking down Marshall's football progress through the first half of the season.
HUNTINGTON -- Prior to the football season, Marshall University's defense broke out in a game of musical chairs.
The shuffle included a pair of Boston College transfers to the safety positions, a Penn State transfer to the cornerback spot, a trio of safeties who moved to linebacker and a linebacker who moved to defensive end.
It's hard to keep all that together just writing about it, so imagine how hard it was for the players to keep in line who was where when.
Needless to say, there have been definite growing pains as the players have learned their new positions while also learning each other's tendencies to build the chemistry necessary to field a unit of 11 players.
"We're not even close to where we've got to be defensively in what our goals are," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said during Tuesday's press conference. "I think some guys have gotten better, but we're not close. We have to continue this week and next week and I'm anxious to see -- we have to continue to build on the progress they've made."
It's still a work in progress and the players are intent on getting things right during an open week on the schedule in order to make a run in the late part of the season.
"We're getting a lot better," Marshall defensive end Alex Bazzie said. "We've finally identified ourselves as a physical defense and we know that's who we are."
Now, the defense is looking to assert itself over the last portion of the season by defending as one 11-man unit instead of as 11 individuals.
STRENGTHS: One of Marshall's strengths this season is certainly its athleticism.
The Herd can laterally get from one side of the field to the other quickly and string out stretch plays in the rushing attack or short pass plays.
Safeties Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha are starting to get comfortable and really fly around to the football, which gives the Thundering Herd a pair of veteran leaders in the defensive backfield.
Marshall is also benefiting from the duo because it allowed for quicker players to move from safety to linebacker and thus, enable the Herd to start defending the pass-happy teams of Conference USA a bit better.
Initially, that left Marshall extremely susceptible to the run as conference teams looked at a linebacker set that featured a starting crew of safety-sized players that were 200 and 210 pounds. The only linebacker that was linebacker-sized (so-to speak) is Jermaine Holmes in the middle.
The lack of size has really forced Marshall to become a more physical defense.
In the past three or four weeks, it has been the norm for Marshall to be taking on teams with running backs who are bigger than the Herd linebackers.
They've started to take the challenge head-on and come with a mentality that they can get the job done.
There's certainly a long way to go, but one of the biggest elements about a defense is confidence.
It was something the Herd lacked at the beginning of the year, but they are starting to get more with each week.
WEAKNESSES: Honestly, there are several key weaknesses that have translated to the Herd having the 120th-ranked scoring defense in the nation and a defense that is struggling in nearly every major statistical category.
Much of the weaknesses simply get down to the basic 101s of football.
Tackling has been the Herd's biggest issue with Marshall missing tackles and, thus, opportunities for stops on several occasions.
Holliday said it is something he will focus on during the bye week following last week's loss to Tulsa, which was filled with missed tackles.
"There's numerous plays in that game that if we make a play, the outcome is probably a little bit different," Holliday said. "Now, making those plays happens during practice. You make them over and over again in practice, when the game comes around, it happens in a game.
"We have to focus on getting better fundamentally and technique-wise so when it does happen again that we can line up and make the play that we didn't the other night to win that football game."
The tackling woes have led to a rushing defense that is ranked 112th in the nation and a pass defense that was ranked in the 100s until last week when Tulsa completely scrapped the pass to pound the ball in the last three quarters. Now, the Herd is 74th in passing defense.
Overall, the Herd's total defense ranks 115th out of 120 teams in the nation while the team is dead-last in the country in scoring defense.
With the opposition running a lot of plays each week because of the quick-strike nature of the Herd offense, the defense has to find ways to get off the field.
That translates into turnovers and defensive stops on third down -- two aspects the Herd has struggled with.
Marshall has just accumulated five turnovers (two fumbles, three interceptions) and the opposition is converting third downs at a rate of 48 percent -- nearly one of every two opportunities.
Some of it is communication, mostly it's execution.
KEY PLAYER GOING FORWARD: Holmes is leading the Herd in tackles for loss with 7.5 but is currently sixth on the team in total tackles from his middle linebacker spot.
He's a player that when he gets into the backfield, he's disruptive and the crowd -- and team -- seem to feed off of his big plays in the run-stop game.
With teams electing to bring the ball right at the Herd, Holmes has to find a way to propel the defense while also taking on the task of getting everyone in the proper position to make plays.
The middle linebacker is essentially the quarterback of most defensive schemes, and the onus falls on Holmes -- a young player in his own right -- to step up and lead the Herd.