Mirabal taking O-line’s growing pains in stride

HUNTINGTON — Had Marshall’s quarterbacks not worn those red no-contact jerseys in the Thundering Herd’s intrasquad scrimmage Friday afternoon, they would have been aching come Saturday morning.

Well, maybe not starter Rakeem Cato, whose escapes from collapsing pockets are making him a Marshall legend. At one point in the scrimmage, he looked like the Easter bunny in reverse gear, taking five backward hops before firing the ball into the stands.

But the less-mobile trio of Gunnar Holcombe, Cole Garvin and Kevin Anderson were tagged early and often. Holcombe and Garvin lost a combined 44 yards on nine “attempts,” almost all of them “sacks” by a vigorous pass rush.

All told, MU’s offensive line yielded 11 such sacks. Life was particularly tough on the youth-laden second string, which is physically outmatched by the Herd’s No. 2 defensive line and linebackers. And with more liberal rotation on the defensive side, that second-string line has faced first-string defenders a bit.

Don’t hit the panic button, Herd followers are advised. Alex Mirabal, the second-year offensive line coach who looks way, way up at his men, certainly isn’t.

Not that he’s doing cartwheels, but he looks at his charges’ progress through a different lens.

“To me, spring ball is about individual development. That’s what it’s about,” Mirabal said. “I want to see how Sandley Jean-Felix is doing, how he’s developing, how A.J. Addison is developing.

“I don’t worry about [sacks, etc.] at all. I worry about what our communication is like, and self-improvement and self-development. You’ve got a lot of kids who are playing there who aren’t going to be playing during the 2014 season, still need seasoning.

“If it were just the starters out there, I’d be worried. I’m not worried about that at all.”

You have to consider the matchups from the point of experience, if nothing else. Most of the 10 or so defensive linemen used Friday are expected to contribute this fall — and remember, end Ra’Shawde Myers and tackle James Rouse didn’t take a snap.

On the second O-line, redshirt freshman Cody Collins may or may not take a snap at center, depending on the comeback of the long-injured Cam Dees. Addison is fresh out of Fork Union Military Academy, and needs to build on his 6-foot-6, 274-pound frame. Chris Huhn and Eric Ansley need seasoning. Jean-Felix, the 6-5, 323-pounder with those outrageously long arms, is most intriguing, but still raw at right tackle.

And those youngsters don’t always play as the same five-man unit. Some even take a rep or three with the first unit. By definition, cohesion isn’t always there.

The youngsters are working with young quarterbacks, with running backs who are not necessarily accomplished pass protectors. It all goes together when a play breaks down, as it does when a play succeeds.

Mirabal’s job is to analyze each lineman, see his strengths and weaknesses, and see who can legitimately back up the first five.

“A lot of things with the sacks are, ‘OK, was the right route run?’ ” Mirabal said. “Did the quarterback throw it out on time? Things that no one factors into it. And that’s fine, but I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about improvement from each kid.

“There are certain things I’m working on. If we wanted to run the power play, we could have run the power every damn play and not thrown the damn ball, and we wouldn’t have been stopped. That’s the way I’m looking at it.

“You’ve got A.J. Addision pass-protecting against kids who have been here three years, it’s going to happen. Now, if you have [No. 1 left tackle Sebastian] Johansson doing it, it’s a different story.”

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

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