CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- OFTEN, I have thrown out 21 points as the number a defense can yield and be regarded as a very good unit in Conference USA. Or in all of major-college football, for that matter.Year after year, the numbers bear that out. But Marshall's new defensive coordinator, Chuck Heater, sees the evidence not just in stats, but up close on the gridiron.His last two coaching stops were Florida and Temple, but the coaching veteran became well-versed in the ways of C-USA, at least in the 2005-12 alignment."The number one defense in this league was 21 points, I think, or 22, the top two teams," he said after Saturday's practice. "That's the number. You get that and you have the two best teams, Central Florida and Tulsa.
"That puts you in the top 20, probably, in the country."Heater was nitpickingly close with the numbers. League champion Tulsa yielded 23.5 points over eight C-USA games, with East Division champion UCF first at 21.6. Their overall numbers over 14 games didn't inflate much, 23.6 and 22.1, respectively. UCF ranked 27th in the nation, Tulsa 35th.But Heater is not inheriting either unit. Instead, he is trying to plug the holes in the most porous defense in Thundering Herd history, one that started the season by giving up 69 to West Virginia and finished by giving up 65 to East Carolina.The final, scoreboard-stressing toll was 517 points yielded, 106 more than Mark Snyder's duct-taped defense of 2007. The overall average of 43.1 finished ahead of Colorado and nobody else. After scoring 59 points but losing in double overtime at ECU, a distraught coach Doc Holliday remarked, "We've got to play some defense around here." Exit Chris Rippon (now at Columbia) and enter Heater, who probably has faced challenges of all degrees in his 37 years of coaching.For now, Heater's defense is still trying to decipher Rakeem Cato and Conference USA's top-ranked offense this spring. In the limited full-contact action Saturday, that offense reigned supreme, with the defense flashing brilliance here and there.Much like in 2012.
In trying to reverse the trend, Heater is eschewing sophistication, at least for the spring. He wants to eliminate confusion at the snap, which led to disastrous long plays in 2012."We're trying to eliminate that, in terms of getting lined up," he said. "We knew that was a problem, for whatever reason, so we worked hard to make it clean for them, that we're not having those problems. I'm sure there are some of those, especially when our offense is going at full speed."Yes, full speed, 90-plays-a-game speed. Coordinator Bill Legg isn't huddling this spring, for sure.But Marshall isn't the only "NASCAR" offense around, and not the only team that tries to stretch defenses over the entire 531/3-yard width of the field. Heater remarked that until recent years, he never dreamed he would care about a back judge signaling that the defense was allowed to substitute. He never figured it would be so tough to get a fresh defensive lineman on the field.
Freshness may be a premium on the D-line. For instance, I figure Sean Cronin was assigned to specialize on defensive ends for a reason - Jeremiah Taylor and Alex Bazzie must become better pass-rushers, and don't ask me who will back them up. Legitimately, anyway.
Perhaps tackles coach J.C. Price, who returned from last year, can develop a solid four-tackle rotation despite the departure of Marques Aiken. At the temporarily depleted linebacker spot, the most interesting item is the battle between Cortez Carter and Jermaine Holmes. I'm mildly surprised Carter has run with the "ones" so far.The back end can be very good, but be cautious in your optimism - strong safety D.J. Hunter is the only bona fide standout this minute.There can be more, though. At corner, Darryl Roberts was much missed a year ago, when he sat out with injury. Keith Baxter is practicing without contact and Derrick Thomas is itching for a much bigger season."[Thomas] is a guy, if you're an NFL [scout], you're looking at him," Heater said. "He's got great size, great length, he's going to run fast. He just doesn't have very good tape. He played some at Penn State, played some here. Now the next step is, you've got to be a [big-time] player. He's done a nice job, he's aware of the things he's got to get better at."That leaves the safety positions, where Taj Letman is playing on the first unit alongside Hunter. The all-redshirt (and all-red jerseyed) duo of A.J. Leggett and Andre Scott are paired in seven-on-seven drills, and are as competitive as can be asked at this point. What if they meet their recruiting hype?
OK, let's keep that excitement in check. Marshall's schedule has changed with UCF and Memphis going to the American Athletic Conference, but I'm not sure the 2013 schedule will be any easier on the Herd's defense.Unless Heater fills all those holes.nn
With the Masters coming up and the Greenbrier Classic just 84 days away, a golf story.Augusta National made headlines last August by welcoming the first two women to its membership, Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore. But did you know that Martha Burke, whose 2003 protest brought the issue to light, prowled the hallowed grounds decades earlier.She did, if you want to stretch it.Bobby Jones, the winner of 13 majors and founder of the Masters, was famous for his Calamity Jane putter, a club so beaten up that writer Charles Price once remarked, "It is the worst putter I've ever held in my hands. If a pro left it in a barrel of clubs in his shop at a dollar apiece, nobody would buy it."I'll leave the history of Calamity Jane and Calamity Jane II to historians, except to note the famous frontierswoman of the late 19th century.Her real name, after marriage?Martha Jane Cannary Burke.So Martha Burke has toured Augusta National several more times than I have. That's just wrong.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.