By DEREK REDD
DAILY MAIL SPORTSWRITER
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — At running back in 2013, Marshall’s football team went from committee to CEO.
At the season’s start, there were four backs fighting for carries in the Thundering Herd’s high-octane offense. As the season progressed, an unlikely leader — former fourth-stringer Essray Taliaferro — emerged as Marshall’s primary ball-carrier, and became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher in five years.
Taliaferro has graduated, leaving a crop of talented runners again fighting to top the depth chart. For now, new running backs coach Chris Barclay doesn’t figure one player will stand alone.
“I’d say it’d probably be a committee, just because all those kids bring something to the table,” said Barclay, the 2005 ACC player of the year as a Wake Forest running back who came to Marshall from William and Mary. “It’s really hard to keep two or three guys off the field and just go with one guy. I think they’ve all had their moments in spring so far.”
The load that Taliaferro carried in 2013 was one not seen from a running back since head coach Doc Holliday’s arrival. He took 221 of the 571 carries last season, 38.7 percent, and finished with 1,163 yards. That’s the most in both volume and percentage of total carries during Holliday’s tenure and the most since Darius Marshall took 227 of 471 carries (48.1 percent) in 2009. That’s also the last time a Herd running back passed the millennium mark. Marshall rushed for 1,177 yards that year.
The race at running back includes mostly familiar names – Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson – plus walk-on Assani Mudimbi, who sat out last season after transferring from Rhode Island and has seen his share of carries this spring. Grooms, Butler and Watson, all entering their third seasons on Marshall’s active roster, no longer are young upstarts. Yet their veteran status hasn’t changed their competitive nature.
“I think that everyone is coming in with the same mindset,” Butler said. “It’s competition every day and every season, so everyone’s coming out to ball.”
The main goal this spring, Marshall coaches said, was for the running backs to improve their pass blocking. Holliday had said Taliaferro’s willingness and ability to block was what moved him to the front of the line. Butler said Barclay has stressed that component of the position.
“Like he says, everybody can run the ball,” Butler said. “We’ve all got talent in the backfield with the ball in our hands. We’ve got to work on protecting Cato.”
Barclay has addressed technique, but also has addressed the need to meet the defender, rather than wait for him to burst into the backfield, to “not be the nail,” in Barclay’s terms. Rather, the new running back coach wants his players to meet force with force and use the talents they have — larger frames in the case of Watson and Mudimbi and speed and athleticism in the case of Butler and Grooms — to become better blockers.
He’s also putting the backs in drills that help them look past the okey-dokes and head fakes and play attention to the defenders’ center of gravity.
“I put them about a yard apart and have them focus on the belt buckle,” Barclay said. “A lot of times what happens is you get caught up in looking at a guy’s head and shoulders and he’s giving you all kinds of different moves. If they key the belt buckle, even with all the different moves in the world, that belt buckle is where the guy’s going to be.”
Holliday has seen improvement in that area through the first half of the spring, enough that he believes the running back job might return to a committee. In fact, he said he wouldn’t mind having it that way.
“Chris has done a nice job with them in understanding what those protections are and they’re doing a good job of sticking their noses up in there,” Holliday said. “As long as they continue to do that, they’re all going to play, because they’re all talented guys.
“If one guy doesn’t have to go play 50 or 60 plays in a game, we’re a whole lot better off,” he continued. “If we can with all those guys and trust all of them, we’ll be a better football team because of it.”
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.