HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -When Boston College graduate transfers Domenick LeGrande and Okechuwu Okoroha stepped into the safety spots at Marshall last year, that was a positive development at the time.As bad as the Thundering Herd's defense was, there is little argument those two kept matters from getting worse. But their one-and-done status brought the inevitable question:What will the Herd do now at safety?That is one of the major issues the Herd faces this spring as the defense tries to recover from a disastrous 2012 season. Only the most diehard MU fan could name the Herd second-string safeties last year.
As Marshall's spring practice wrapped up its third week Friday, naming the current first string isn't so difficult. Think D.J. Hunter, the then-redshirt freshman who was moved up to serve as an undersized linebacker.Hunter didn't do too badly on the strong side last year. He was third on the team in tackles (102), with 31/2 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. And remember, he was a largely invisible nickel back in the 69-34 opening loss at West Virginia.But he wasn't home, so to speak, and the idea was to bring him back this spring."It don't feel any different," Hunter said Friday after the Herd's third spring practice. "I'm coming back to what I'm used to playing."Listed at 6-foot, 207 pounds, Hunter is becoming a big-sized strong safety, but still would be an undersized linebacker. He was listed at 204 pounds last season, but probably spent much time on the light side of 200.Chuck Heater, now MU's defensive coordinator and secondary coach, could see it in game videos."I thought he was one of their better players," he said. "He would flash, he'd be running by people, but he'd readily admit that he missed a lot of plays. We're trying to get him under control; he's a very athletic guy, fast. But you've got to play in a controlled manner sometimes."Free safety becomes an even bigger issue, and the door may be open for redshirt sophomore Shawn Samuels. The 5-10, 194-pounder from Bainbridge, Ga., is getting a chance to show why schools such as Arkansas pursued him before he became a nonqualifier.Among the other candidates, junior-college import Taj Letman is as intriguing as any. An Elberton, Ga., native who attended Holmes Community College in Mississippi, his 6-3, 180-pound frame gives him an edge on most - if he uses it to his advantage."He's a big ol' guy," Heater. "Six-3 is great, but 6-3 has got to function like 5-11. A big, tall guy sometimes has trouble getting their feet in the ground and transitioning. But he's been decent."Heater himself becomes an "X" factor. He is new to the Thundering Herd staff and knows the fans want a winner and want it quickly, and he is trying to parlay his experience to that end.
So far, Herd defenders are buying into Heater's style, particularly those in his position room."If he tells me going to get a loaf of bread every night will make me a good safety, I will listen," Hunter said. "I've got nothing to argue back to him about, because he's been there, he's done that. I mean, he's got 37 years of experience."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/dougsmock.