Curraj's kickoffs giving Herd defense a leg up
HUNTINGTON - As ludicrous as it sounds, a case can be made for Amareto Curraj as Marshall's defensive MVP.
The freshman kicker from Leto, Fla., has no tackles, no pass break-ups and surely won't be mistaken for one of the Thundering Herd's linebackers. But coach Doc Holliday has noted his value just about every Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
"The kicker being able to kick those four non-returnable kicks, that's a big, huge help for our defense," Holliday said.
Here's why: Many defensive players, generally linebackers and safeties, play on special teams, including the kickoff unit, where speed and hitting ability are critical.
So is stamina, which is needed the rest of the game for however many snaps those players receive at their positions. If they're chasing kickoff returners every time in this era of the return-unfriendly rules, they're at a disadvantage.
The Herd chased a bunch of kickoffs in 2012, with only six touchbacks in 83 of them. Opponents averaged 25.1 yards per return, but that yearlong figure is deceiving. In the last five weeks, that number swelled to 31.4 yards, with Central Florida's Quinton McDuffie returning two the distance.
A large part of that was the thinning-out of MU's coverage personnel due to injuries. That seemed to start early in the season, when Evan McKelvey tore his anterior cruciate ligament while covering a kickoff.
The coverage unit is getting less work this fall, thanks to Curraj. He has taken 37 kickoffs - all but the Herd's very first of the season - and has knocked 25 of them for touchbacks.
"It feels great I can actually do something productive for them," Curraj said. "Instead of coming back to the sidelines and having sad faces, they're all happy and smacking me and saying, 'Good job!' It feels good, you know, that I'm actually doing something."
Like many kickers, Curraj has a long soccer background, playing when he was 6 or 7 years old - not long after his family came to the U.S. from Albania. He played for Leto High, a competitive program in Tampa, Fla.
He played some midfield and some forward at Leto. He was excellent with headers, but also possessed a wicked free-kick stroke, one that served him well in the transition to football. It was a transition Curraj felt he had to make to play in college.
"It's hard to get a soccer scholarship, unless you play premier league," Curraj said. "You need to have thousands and thousands of dollars a year, and I didn't have that."
Curraj said the transition wasn't that hard. He said his soccer background blessed him with a strong leg that rarely tires, a trait that should have him kicking touchbacks deep in the Herd's season.
He has some work to do to kick field goals in a game, especially with well-entrenched junior Justin Haig ahead of him. Haig is 21 of 28 (75 percent) in career field goals and has hit all 89 of his extra points.
Curraj will keep plugging along, using much of the same techniques he learned in soccer.
"Even though it's a different shaped ball, you kick a soccer ball and you have to face forward, you have to keep your head down," he said. "You can't look up, can't open up your hips. Same thing in [football] - it's a different type of ball, but it's about the same mechanics."
But his chore with the Herd is different. He doesn't have to curl a round ball past a goalkeeper, or knock a pigskin between the uprights. All he needs for now is good hang time and 65-plus yards on distance on his kickoffs, enough to make returners take a knee.
And let his teammates jog to their positions, or the sidelines.
"It's better, because the defense starts on the 25 [-yard line]," Curraj said. "The players on the kickoff are usually our best players, and they usually get tired running from the 35 all the way down every time, especially with a high-scoring team.
"It's one burden that I can take away from them, and I'm glad I can."
Marshall punt returner Devon "Moo Moo" Smith was named national punt returner of the week by the College Football Performance Awards for his 77-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Herd's 24-23 win at Florida Atlantic. He also had three receptions for 50 yards, including a 35-yarder that set up the winning field goal.
Tight end Gator Hoskins was named to the John Mackey Award midseason watch list. He has five touchdowns, tied nationally for the lead among tight ends, and has 12 catches for 210 yards. His 41-yard catch and run on fourth-and-5 not only saved Marshall's hopes at FAU, it resulted in a TD and a 23-21 deficit.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.