HUNTINGTON — The frigid, blustery winds and the snow that intermittently coated the Joan C. Edwards Stadium turf on Tuesday’s first day of Marshall spring football practice did not deter James Rouse from sporting short sleeves and shorts for the afternoon session.
“It’s a mindset, man,” Rouse said with a smile on his face and a legion of goosebumps on his arms. “I’ve been doing it all offseason. I’m just trying to keep the mindset going.”
He might have been shivering, but this spring marks the first healthy one the sixth-year defensive tackle has enjoyed in a long time. He wants to use it to build on his 2013 performance, which earned him all-Conference USA first team honors.
After a back injury kept him out of all but three games in 2011 and a spring-season Achilles tendon tear shelved him for all of 2012, Rouse returned last year to record a team-high 14 tackles for loss with six sacks and five quarterback hurries. On top of his all-conference selection, Rouse also was named the Thundering Herd’s team MVP.
Even after a season where he dominated in the trenches, Rouse said there was room to improve.
“I want to work on my technique,” Rouse said. “That’s one thing I really didn’t do good last year. I was out there just playing and trying to make plays. That helped me and I had a good season, but I can have an even better season if I do the little things right and have my footwork right and look at the backfield and everything like that.”
All of that can come with a spring session without injury, which he earned after the NCAA granted him a medical hardship waiver for his sixth season in Huntington. On top of that tinkering, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Rouse has done well in regaining the strength in his lower body. He was robbed of those opportunities for the previous two offseasons, as his various injuries left him rehabbing, rather than refining.
“I think his lower-body strength is something we worked on hard in the offseason,” Holliday said. “He’s had the Achilles and he’s had the back and he’s had those issues and he’s neglected his lower body at times in the offseason and in the weight room because of it. But he’s gotten through a whole offseason of lower-body work and he’s got tremendous strength up top.”
The 22-year-old also wants to continue developing as both an on-field and off-field leader, attributes he finally was able to show through 2013.
“I think it’s something I grew into last year,” he said. “At first, I really wasn’t an assertive leader because I hadn’t been out there with the guys. Once I got their respect and got their attention, it was easier for me to be a leader.”
Holliday said that Rouse’s experience will allow the coaches to keep his spring reps to a minimum, so he can focus on individual drills and lower the risk of any more maladies. So Rouse will get to serve as a mentor to less experienced linemen like freshman Gary Thompson. The sixth-year lineman knows the importance of veteran leadership, and said that what work he does get this spring has to be top-level.
“It’s different now that I’m one of the leaders on the team,” Rouse said. “I always think about when I first came in, I always looked up to the Albert McClellans and all those guys. To know that I’m in that situation and people look up to me, I have to be out there and doing what I need to do every day and make sure I’m a person that can be counted on to be where I need to be.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.