HUNTINGTON — Practice 13 came on Friday morning, but it was anything but unlucky for the Marshall Thundering Herd football team.
Big plays were made on both the defense and the offense, and special teams still are making the progress that leads third-year head coach Doc Holliday say, “We’ll be fine, we will be fine.”
Justin Haig was 4-for-4 kicking from 20 to 41 yards, while Trent Martin was three of four, missing when James Powers gave another poor snap to holder Blake Frohnapfel, the kind of snap that had Holliday letting the long-snapper know, in no uncertain terms, his efforts were not good enough.
Freshman Tyler Williams really punted well, hitting a 48-50-59-51 on four punts and putting more distance between himself and redshirt frosh Austin Dumas, how had a 37-42-24-39, and two of the shorter punts were also a low trajectory and easily returned for large gains.
It was a little “chippy” during pass skeleton and team, as the defensive backs were saddling some receivers, giving big pops on drills and occasionally “mugging” offensive players, and Okechukwu Okoroha came up with an interception early.
Rakeem Cato and B. Frohnapfel threw the ball well in skel, while true freshman Gunnar Holcomb benefitted from a couple of great catches by Chris Alston and Antavious Wilson, then a touchdown strike of 36 yards in skel to freshman DeAndre Reaves, followed on the next play with a 20-yard scoring strike to Dameon Garrett.
The best play in team was a perfect play-action fake by Cato to senior back Martin Ward, then hitting Kevin Grooms for another long touchdown of 58 yards where Grooms split the linebackers and outran the secondary to the end zone, pulling away the further he ran.
Defensively, Monterius Lovett, seeing his time starting to fade with the ones as Penn State transfer Derrick Thomas comes on, had to best pass break up of the fall, knocking a touchdown out of the hands of Demetrius Evans from Cato.
Raheem Waiters picked up a sack in team, as did Brandon Sparrow — who returned after missing some time with injury.
Towards the end, both Armonze Daniels and Alex Bazzie picked up offensive fumbles and rumbled 40 yards for a defensive touchdown.
While Holliday has to balance the touchdowns by the offense against take-away scores for the defense as the head coach, he is happy with how practice is going this fall, and how different it is from 2010, when he took over the program.
“Number one, they know how to practice. It took us a while to learn they have to go hard everyday to get better and this is what, practice number 13, and every time I walk off, I have no regrets. They have come out and gone hard,” said Holliday.
“The other thing is we have competition. If you remember, we had one tail back and two walk-ons, I didn’t have guys.
“Now, if you don’t go extremely hard, there will be other guys in there. We have more players at each position and competition is a great thing.”
He also loves the fact freshmen can come in early and get acclimated in the Herd’s system, and that’s why so many young players are stepping up in the last two seasons.
“Guys used to come in just before camp and they didn’t play very much, or they didn’t know what they were doing if they had to play, they were not prepared.
“The NCAA allows us to bring these kids in (two months) early, and Mike Hamrick and Dr. Kopp provide us with the money and opportunity to keep them here,” said Holliday.
“There are a few programs who would like to keep their kids all summer, but can’t because of financial concerns.
“If you are going to compete for championships, you have to. We are fortunate to be able to.”
The Herd defense is rounding into shape, and transfers are beginning to make a difference in the Marshall scheme set after spring football.
With both Derrick LeGrande and Okoroha coming in as seniors safeties from Boston College, and junior Derrick Thomas, a cornerback from Penn State with two seasons to play, Holliday is happy to see the difference these experienced players from the ACC and Big Ten are making in the mind set of his defense.
“I think it helps the two safeties were roommates and were coached well at Boston College,” said Holliday. “Derrick (Thomas) is not a high school guy coming in with the techniques and fundamentals taught at the college levels, he has coaching by a great staff, and I think that’s why they all have no trouble adjusting to what we are doing. I think they will be fine.
“I don’t know how much ‘O’ and Derrick communicated in high school, that’s a different ballgame, but the two BC guys, no question … but that’s what all of our guys do is communicate, they are expected to do, and O and D take charge out there.”
Thomas and Okoroha both played at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Maryland, with Okoroha being a senior and Thomas a sophomore.
Okoroha talked about communication like his head coach being so important to the team.
“We want to improve on our communication in the camp with the other players, and work on the little things,” said Okoroha.
“Our three big things to work on, every day, are taking in the plays — making sure you understanding the plays and understand where you fit.
“Second, how you fit into the defense on each and every play. Then, lastly, to play fast on every play.”
Okoroha visited Marshall this summer before transferring and said Devin Arrington, who would have been the only senior on defense until the two safeties came to MU from BC, had a lot to do with them coming here, and a lot to do with how well the defense plays.
“I learned a lot from DA, he was my host when I got here. DA like a big brother, even though we are the same age, but he understands safety and can help me, but DA is always trying to learn more.
The coaches knew what they were doing when they had DA be my host, because I don’t think anybody has anything bad to say about DA, he is a great guy, all around, on the field and off, in the classroom a really good guy.”
LeGrande echos what his roommate at BC and MU said about the situation of moving to Marshall for a final season.
“I am happy with the decision to be here at Marshall, I couldn’t have made a better decision,” said LeGrande.
“I think we bring experience, physicality and cover skills, that’s what we bring to the table.
“I would think adding two more seniors to a small group of seniors on game days will give us more experience to share with a bunch of young guys.
“There is so much talent here, but it is very young, so we will try to lead the best way we can.”
LeGrande and Okoroha don’t talk much about anything to prove, but now that they are getting up to speed, they are excited about what lies ahead this season.
“I was a little rusty (after a year off), but I liked what I put on the tape in the (first) scrimmage,” said LeGrande.
“It is all about going out there every day and getting better at practice. All you have is your work, and when you come back to it at the end of the day, it is the work you put in.
“A lot of people may have thought it was over (for ‘O’ and me) a couple of years ago, but people always like to talk wherever you go.
“I want to go out and be the best player I can be every day, and get to the next level and be one of the best safeties in the country.
“A couple guys have come to Marshall to play and have made it to the next level (like Omar Brown and Vinny Curry). That’s what I want to do.”
If LeGrande and Okoroha do that, Marshall will benefit from great safety play and two more players making their way into the National Football League, joining a dozen already there from the Green and White.
Marshall’s last "open" scrimmage is Saturday at 10:45 a.m., if you belong to the Big Green.
Only Big Green members, and those who join the Big Green at Gate A on Saturday, are allowed in the scrimmage except for media and Marshall students with valid ID.
Starting Monday, all practices are closed to the public, as Marshall opens with in-state rival West Virginia on Sept. 1 and hosts long-time rival Ohio U. on Sept. 15.
Saturday night is the Huntington Quarterback Club’s Annual Membership Party, and this year they are betting you will want to attend “Casino Night.”
The event starts at 7 p.m. in the Marshall Memorial Student Union, and tickets are $100 each.
Prizes include a trip with the Herd, most likely to the Big Ten game at Purdue, and many other great prizes.
There will be a band, “Santa Cruz,” food, refreshments and fun with Doc Holliday and his staff.