HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It's tough to handicap Marshall's linebacker competition, particularly when more candidates are on the way and a new coaching staff is installing a new scheme.
But with eight of 15 spring practices finished, there seems to be one constant focus, carried over from the previous year - Jermaine Holmes vs. Cortez Carter in the middle.
In many games, those two split snaps nearly down the middle, alternating stretches of two or three possessions at a time. Eventually, Holmes finished as the team's fourth-leading tackler, 82 with 131/2 for loss, with one sack. Carter (36 tackles, one for loss, one sack) was 11th.
But both know where the Thundering Herd defense stood as a unit - worse that bad. The survivors of that 517-point beat-down are looking for some wisdom on how to push that out of mind.
Adam Fuller, the new linebackers coach, saw that in his first few meetings with the group.
"It was a bunch of guys eager to play, and they weren't proud of the way it ended up last year," Fuller said. "Nobody was, and they want to get it fixed."
In Thursday's workout, Holmes worked at the "Mike" middle spot, with freshman Stefan Houston operating on the weak side. Behind them were Carter in the middle, alongside fifth-year senior Billy Mitchell. (MU has emphasized nickel formations, with variations from there.)
But that hasn't been a hard-and-fast order. Perhaps the lineup for the officiated scrimmage Saturday morning will give a better indication; perhaps it won't.
"Today, it was me and Billy out there," Carter said. "Some days it would be me and Jermaine, or me and Stefan. So we're all building a chemistry there."
With freshman Kent Turene having ankle surgery Thursday and missing the rest of spring, those four will get a heavy workout. Houston becomes the intriguing newcomer.
The native of Clarksburg, Md., who came to MU after a semester at Fork Union Military Academy, Houston had more than 100 tackles as a high school senior and also played wide receiver and some "Wildcat" quarterback.
But playing "Will" in defensive coordinator Chuck Heater's developing scheme puts him in unfamiliar waters.
"Well, he's never played closer than about 10 yards away from the football before he got here," Fuller said. "But he's been pretty natural at it. Every day he's progressed, he's gotten better, he's made a lot of plays and he looks pretty natural doing it.
"Every snap we put into Stefan, we feel really good about. He's worth the investment."
As important as this spring is, the linebacker room will take on a new look as spring turns into summer. Neville Hewitt arrives from Georgia Military College, while Raheem Waiters and Evan McKelvey are expected to return by August. The latter two have been seen this week, running with other rehabilitating players.
Back on the field, Holmes asserted himself Thursday, showing pass-coverage skills not often seen from him. In a red-zone play, Carter blanketed Eric Frohnapfel so well that the 6-foot-6 tight end didn't have a chance at Rakeem Cato's throw.
Keep in mind Holmes is listed at 5-11. "You know Frohnapfel, he's a big dude," Holmes said.
While Holmes' fellow defenders celebrated, Fuller noticed one flaw, one that turns potential game-turning plays into potential afterthoughts.
"It would have been great if he got his head around in the back of the end zone and picked the ball off," Fuller said. "Where he is right there, he's in great position to do that. Baby steps - we made a play down in the red area, and if you keep them out of the end zone that's a good thing."
Holmes' back-to-ball breakup highlighted a big day for the defense. That seemed to start with the nine-on-seven running drill, where Holmes hammered Essray Taliaferro in the backfield.
Following were Taj Letman's interception of Gunnar Holcombe in the seven-on-seven red-zone period, followed by Derrick Thomas' near-pick of Cato. In full scrimmaging, the second unit rang up several tag "sacks," a development that then seemed to spread to the first unit.
And the "whoops" grew louder among a hungry defense.
"We got the offense today. Usually, they'd be doing the same thing to us," Holmes said. "Coach Heater, he brought that enthusiasm that we didn't really have last year."
A final note on the defensive side: End Jeremiah Taylor, the 25-year-old elder statesman, sat out the full-contact portions of Thursday's practice simply to get some rest.
"He's played a lot of football, and some of these others need to go play," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "Joe Massaquoi needs every rep he can get and J.T. doesn't need as many."
Those watching Thursday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium were wondering, "Is that really a camera on Cato's helmet?"
Yes, it was. But it wasn't for filming an MTV reality show.
"We're trying to see what he sees at times," Holliday said. "We're experimenting a little bit. It's just a camera where we can see, in some different drills, exactly what he sees and why he makes certain decisions."
Saturday's scrimmage is set for 9:15 a.m. and is open to Big Green Scholarship Foundation members and season-ticket holders. All are advised to enter in the area of Gate D, at the stadium's northeast corner.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.