HUNTINGTON - Using last week's game against outmanned Western Carolina to its fullest advantage, Marshall tried to dig its trenches a little deeper.
The truest test comes this Saturday and the weeks ahead, but the Thundering Herd succeeded in building line depth in the 52-24 victory over the Catamounts. Coach Doc Holliday and staff worked four linemen into their respective rotations, two of them making their college debuts.
One was Cam Dees, the true freshman making his debut at right guard in place of John Bruhin. He was recruited as a center and trained as a second-teamer throughout the preseason, but has moved over a spot for the time being.
Dees, a 6-foot-2, 280-pound freshman from Seffner, Fla., put in about 60 snaps, and he was quite happy to start his college career in a less taxing position.
"Guard is 10 times easier than center ever was," he said.
Alex Schooler isn't fresh out of high school, but he played less as a sophomore last year than he did in his redshirt freshman season of 2010. He started at left tackle in the Herd's 11th game last year at Memphis and was the Herd's lone reserve lineman in the bowl game.
He has been hampered by injury, needing surgery on a torn labrum after 2010 and a microdisectomy on his back after last year.
When coaches held out Josh Lovell on Saturday, Schooler got to back up his solid spring season and preseason camp with a full game, showing coaches he belongs back in the rotation. He's a four-year veteran, but Schooler said he felt like a newcomer.
"It's unbelievable to come out and start the first home game, and to see all those fans out here," Schooler said. "It's an awesome feeling to be out here with your teammates after working so hard."
With Dees and Schooler established, the Herd has eight offensive linemen (pending the return of right tackle Garrett Scott) that coaches seem comfortable with when the game's on the line. Ten would be ideal, but the picture has improved markedly since Holliday and staff came on board in 2010.
The line is producing. Removing a 22-yard loss on a bad snap, the Herd is averaging more than 4 yards a carry, and the line has allowed just two sacks.
"We're finally getting to the place where we have more guys that we're comfortable with, and them playing in a game well enough for us to win," said offensive coordinator Bill Legg. "You've got to have that at every position."
On the defensive side, line coach J.C. Price has found himself pushing his ends to improve, and rebuilding his depth at tackle. The return of Steve Dillon and Jarquez Samuel, both redshirt freshmen, is considered critical. Along with South Charleston produce Blake "Big Cheese" Brooks, Dillon and Samuel are backing up starters Brandon Sparrow and Marques Aiken.
Dillon and Samuel were hurt in the latter part of camp, with Dillon finally making his college debut against Western Carolina. They have yet to land on the defensive stat sheet.
Remember, Samuel redshirted and Dillon practiced but could not play as a partial qualifier.
"They're just getting into about their third week of camp," Price said. "The rest of these guys have been practicing for four weeks of camp, seven weeks [total]. When you come off a whole year off like they did, they're just rusty."
The last pieces of the puzzle on the defensive line are those ends. Alex Bazzie, who shares time with Ra'Shawde Myers, is the second-leading tackler with 15 and established starter Jeremiah Taylor has 11. Taylor has the only sack among the five ends (Armonze Daniel and Malcolm Strong are battling to back up Taylor).
That quintet has combined for just 31/2 tackles for loss. Last year, Vinny Curry alone had 41/2 tackles for loss, three sacks and a safety after two games.
With that, Marshall still has to dig a little deeper in the trenches.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org