HUNTINGTON – The change in Marshall’s offense has been evident throughout preseason drills leading toward Saturday’s football opener at No. 11 West Virginia.
Compared to Coach Doc Holliday’s first two seasons in green, the Thundering Herd has more speed, more power, more depth, more versatility, more experience … and Bill Legg is smiling more often, too.
Legg, the veteran offensive coordinator, has spent the last two seasons on the Herd sideline, doing those two-armed gyrations to signal in plays – except that he’s been doing so with a figurative hand tied behind his back.
That’s what happens first when you’re a new staff with a lot of rookie players in a new system, and then you’re a team with a true freshman quarterback (Rakeem Cato) and redshirt freshman center (Chris Jasperse) – the two keys to adapting on the fly and dealing with audibles.
“I don’t know how much we’ve expanded the offense,” Legg said after the Herd’s practice Wednesday. “The biggest thing we’ve done is taken the handcuffs off. Last year, in spurts, we tried to take the handcuffs off and we weren’t completely ready to do it.
“So we’d call a run play, and we were running that play no matter what the defense did. That was a run play, so it’s being run. I don’t like doing that, but it’s where we were. So it put that much more pressure on the offensive line, the running backs.
“Now, we call a run play, we may run it, we may not run it. And that’s the biggest change. And the same thing goes with the pass protection. Last year we called it and lived with it. This year, we don’t live with it. We do what we have to do to get into a protection that’s going to allow us to pick up the blitz. There are hot throws involved, and a year ago a lot of that didn’t exist.”
A manifestation of the maturing offense will come on game days. Legg is leaving the sideline (at least to start the season) to go upstairs to the coaches’ booth – where most offensive coordinators work.
When tight ends coach Phil Ratliff left the MU staff for Charlotte’s fledgling program, Holliday retooled things and hired line coach Geep Wade, freeing Legg from those duties with the big ‘uns.
Now, more of the calls will be in the hands of sophomores Cato and Jasperse, with a freedom – to a certain extent – to audible into something that has a chance of gaining yardage.
The Herd ranked No. 102 of 120 FBS teams in total offense last season, and while the Marshall offense headed to Oregon to brainstorm with the Ducks’ wide-open “Quack Attack” in the offseason, the MU offense is much more of the one Legg brought here from earlier coordinator stops at Purdue and Florida International.
“What we’re going to do is what we had planned when we came in here,” said Legg, 50, who is in his eighth collegiate coaching stint, including two stops at Marshall. “It’s what I’m used to doing, that Peyton Manning-at-Indianapolis Colts mentality where there’s always more than one play that can be run, based on what play gets called and what the defense is giving us.
“So now, where last year we called a round peg, hoping it would be a round hole, this year we feel pretty strongly that when we call a round peg, and it’s any other hole than round, we’re going to be able to match up the peg to the hole. Then, the numbers are going to match up and we’re not going to be running or throwing into stuff that we shouldn’t be running or throwing into.”
Legg said that aspect to the Herd offense “has existed” since the Holliday staff walked into the Shewey Building offices, “but the ability to use that part of the offense not necessarily has existed. Now, I feel more confident that it does.”
Legg said run or pass, the Herd should be capable. It should be more about execution than experience – or lack of it – in 2012.
“I’m more comfortable with the whole thing,” Legg said when asked if he has a better feeling now about the run or pass game. “That’s because I’m not asking the offensive line to block every conceivable blitz known to man.
“I’m not asking the quarterback to read every coverage known to man. I’m not asking the running backs to make a guy miss that we can’t block at the line of scrimmage, and I’m not asking a receiver to win when he’s double-covered … and all of those pieces kind of fit together.
“The odds are in our favor when it comes to running the right play, and now it’s more about execution, where last year at best, it was 50-50 that we were running the right play. And no matter how well we executed, half of the time that play was not going to be successful.”
Legg referenced his two seasons (2001-02) as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator on the staff of then-Herd Coach Bob Pruett, before he was a coordinator at Purdue and FIU, then joined fellow Putnam County native and WVU alumnus Holliday on the current MU staff.
“I go all the way back to when I was here the last time with Bob. Byron (Leftwich) was an outstanding quarterback and he had great players around him, but one of the things that made that offense special was that we took what the defense gave us. We didn’t try to run plays, be they run or pass, that we shouldn’t have been running them into.
“That whole mentality is the mentality we’re carrying now: If this is what they’re giving us, then this is what we’re going to take. And now I’m not asking guys to do things that are not necessarily impossible, but very improbable.
“Now, at least what I’m asking guys to do, be it block, run, throw, catch, the things are there and we’re doing it for the right reason. We’re getting into the right plays.”