HUNTINGTON — Call it ‘Separation Saturday.’
With Marshall’s scheduled 2020 opener now just two weeks away, the Herd coaching staff is locked in to this weekend’s scrimmage to see what the team can do once the coaches get off the field and the team is put in game situations.
Fittingly, the scrimmage will have a nighttime feel to it, which gives the players an opportunity to perform under the lights at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Marshall coach Doc Holliday said that this week’s scrimmage will vary from last week’s, making it more game-like instead of seeing situational play as scripted by the staff.
“It’s going to be more situations where it’s first-and-10, put the ball down and go play,” Holliday said.
Most eyes will be fixated on the quarterback position where redshirt freshman Grant Wells looks to solidify the starting job over Luke Zban and Eli Sammons.
Holliday likes how Wells has progressed during camp over the last few weeks, adding that the receivers are starting to trust more in Wells.
“No. 1, he’s got the skill set,” Holliday said. “That’s where it starts. He can make all the throws, he can run, extremely intelligent and he’s got the intangibles. Now, it’s just a matter of him getting the reps and getting better every day.”
Marshall offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said that the thing he’s looking for the most is consistency.
“This week coming up is a big position battle, as everything else,” Cramsey said. “It’s one thing to do 7-on-7, it’s one thing to do a thud period. It’s another thing when the mentality is that you’re live, you get tackled, you’re doing these things and we’re putting you in situations to be positive. Can you make that play?
“It’s a good time for me to find out from these new guys, ‘Can you make these plays I’m going to ask you to make on Saturday nights?’ If not, then we’ll do something else.”
In normal years, the coaching staff would have the top two units on each side of the ball as a focal point. However, in COVID-19 times, the coaches are evaluating everybody and trying to get the third and even fourth players at positions some live repetitions to get them game ready.
While the quarterback position is the most visible battle on Marshall’s team, perhaps the linebacker position is one that also takes center stage.
Tavante Beckett, C-USA’s leading tackler from a year ago, returns, but aside from him, the second level of the defense is pretty unproven.
Holliday used last week’s scrimmage to see who could make plays in space and guys like Charlie Gray stood out. However, an injury to defensive end Sam Burton moved Gray down for a look at the defensive end spot where he can utilize his speed.
Gray is part of a strong nucleus of newcomers on the second level, though, with Abraham Beauplan and Brian Cavicante. However, a pair of players also turning heads include returnees Eli Neal and Domenick Murphy.
Neal has especially been active in the last few days so it will be interesting to see what repetitions he gets.
The development of the Herd’s linebacker level will play a large role in how many multiple looks that Marshall’s defense gives under Brad Lambert.
If the linebackers show promise and acclimation to game speed, it opens up the possibilities for Lambert to go to a three-down front in certain situations.
If there is no separation among the top linebackers, Marshall’s secondary is experienced and talented enough that Lambert may opt to stay primarily in nickel looks, which would have Beckett and another linebacker joined by five defensive backs.
Holliday added that in addition to looking at position battles, much of the focus will be on extended drive work and seeing how players on each side of the ball react to being on the field for long periods of time.
With COVID-19 having taken spring football away and action being limited, conditioning was a major concern heading into the season with guys not having been on the field in seven months.
“Most of the stuff you saw last Saturday and even today was six to seven plays max,” Holliday said. “We’ll get up into eight-play drives and some longer drives Saturday for the conditioning part of it.”
Marshall’s Saturday scrimmage brings the unofficial end to preseason camp and leads into next week’s start into game preparation for the Sept. 5 season opener against Eastern Kentucky at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.