HUNTINGTON – To say that Marshall’s football defense is a work in progress would be an understatement.
The Thundering Herd has allowed 990 yards and 93 points in a 1-1 start, and another high-octane outfit is due in Saturday night when Ohio (2-0) comes calling at Edwards Stadium in the 56th Battle for the Bell rivalry game.
However, those aforementioned numbers are where the Herd has been, not where it’s going.
In an opening loss at West Virginia, Marshall primarily dropped eight and went with a three-man rush. Prior to the Herd’s victory over Western Carolina on Saturday, Coach Doc Holliday said his team would go with more four-down principles.
However, considering the personnel moves by coordinator Chris Rippon’s unit, the Herd defense continues to morph its way toward Conference USA play, where most teams don’t have just a pass-first mentality. It’s pass-second and pass-third, too.
“We’re trying to get where we need to get to in our conference,” Rippon said, when quizzed about some of the personnel mixing-and-matching and position-changing on defense. “That, and we have so many young guys who haven’t played much. We’re still feeling our way as to what to do.”
Against the Catamounts, Rippon had moved strong safety and nickel back D.J. Hunter to strongside linebacker, and Hunter started in place of the opening-game starter, Raheem Waiters. Backup strongside LB Devon Johnson went to offense, as an H-back.
And when the sets and the personnel were sized up, so to speak, forget the base 4-3 or the 3-4 usually at work.
Marshall was often in the 4-2-5 developed by TCU Coach Gary Patterson, or, with such small and speedy linebackers at times, the look seemed more like a 3-2-6 “Mustang” set that LSU plays under $1.1 million coordinator John Chavis.
One “listed” Herd rush end, Alex Bazzie or Ra’Shawde Myers, morphs into an outside linebacker.
Then, Rippon is using a lot of “defensive backs or ‘slash’ guys,” to play gaps and cover slot receivers and tight ends.
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In the December workouts prior to last season’s Beef ‘O'Brady’s Bowl, Waiters was moved from safety to linebacker, and a decision was made – although not enacted for the bowl – to bring Devin Arrington back to linebacker from safety.
After spring ball, safety Evan McKelvey went to linebacker, once the Herd had Boston College transfers Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha to play the two safety spots. That left the talented redshirt freshman Hunter without a starting job … until he was moved to "Sam" (strong side) linebacker last week.
“Derek Mitchell is one of those (hybrid linebacker-safety) guys, too,” Rippon said. “Those ‘slash’ guys you can move them all over. In the 4-2-5, TCU plays three safeties, two corners, two linebackers and four down linemen.
“We can also use a rush end as an outside ‘backer into the boundary.”
So, that’s more like a 3-2-6, Rippon conceded.
A whole lot of times against Western Carolina, middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes – a legitimate linebacker-sized 5 feet 11, 245 pounds – was the only “traditional” LB on the field. He was flanked by Arrington (210 pounds) and Hunter (189).
On more than one series, the second line of defense averaged between 204 and 210 pounds, with "Mike" linebacker Cortez Carter (224), McKelvey (198) and Hunter (189) or Waiters (205).
Both former BC safeties weigh more than Waiters, McKelvey, Hunter and Mitchell (196), and they match Arrington.
Deep snapper Matt Cincotta, a former linebacker in high school in Charlotte, N.C., outweighs (203) those linebackers that look and play like safeties.
And Bazzie and Myers, more linebacker-types than ends, are 225 and 234, respectively.
Rippon said the Herd can play a multitude of safety-speed men when the front holds its own.
The Herd coordinator, however, concedes the Bobcats may be a different story.
With a veteran offensive line (fourth- and fifth-year players) that averages about 300 pounds, Ohio will present a different and stronger challenge – in more ways than one – than WCU did or upcoming Conference USA foes will.
“They have a very physical offensive line, and they’ve gotten themselves to the point where they believe they can handle anybody,” Rippon said of a Bobcats’ front that seems so corn-fed that it could be "Nebraska East," harkening back to Coach Frank Solich’s roots.
“They felt they could wear Penn State down and they did. That’s a pretty confident statement about an offensive line.”
The Herd’s speed could help in other ways, however, because Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton is known for keeping plays alive with his legs and elusiveness as well as with his arm.
“The biggest key is their two tight ends (Jordan Thompson and Troy Hill),” Rippon said. “We’ve got to handle them. Those guys are legit.”
So, whether it’s 4-3-4, 3-3-5, 4-2-5, 3-2-6 or some other Coach Rip concoction against Ohio, it’s likely not going to be exactly what the Herd will morph into against Rice, UCF or East Carolina.
The numbers, however, still have to add up somewhere besides on a scale or a tackles chart.