HUNTINGTON — Battling just to keep his Marshall career alive six months ago, Armonze Daniel is now closer to a starting job at defensive end.
Not that he has clinched his place for the Thundering Herd’s first defensive snap Aug. 30 at Miami (Ohio), but the fact that he has been taking first-team reps speaks loudly.
Before the spring, Daniel’s legacy was long into the slide from “four-star recruit” to a word that rhymes with “dust.”
“He came out of spring a starter. He’s worked his butt off,” said Sean Cronin, MU’s defensive ends coach. “We really challenged Armonze, we had some brutally honest meetings prior to that, and he wasn’t a very good player.”
Yes, that was brutal honesty. And it didn’t really matter that Armonze was moved from linebacker well before his 6-foot-4 frame filled out to its current 238 pounds. He wasn’t going to survive at any position without a fundamental change between the ears.
Which, Cronin said, has happened with the junior.
“He kept his mouth shut, he went to work every day,” Cronin said. “He comes out there and he strains, never gives up on plays. He’s got excellent get-off and he fights to get involved with plays.
“He had a hell of a [mini-]scrimmage last Saturday. He’s very much improved. He’s a guy who’s going after these spots — he didn’t look at who’s a senior, a junior, he didn’t care. He went and he’s been competing, he’s been fighting. When other guys see that, they say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ ”
But the fight is not over for the top spots at defensive end. Even Ra’Shawde Myers, the senior who received preseason All-Conference USA plaudits from the league’s coaches, isn’t conceded a starting spot.
Even if Myers starts as expected, he won’t play every down. The competition is fierce to take those spare snaps, and/or play at the opposite end where Daniel is toiling. A quick rundown on the field:
n Joe Massaquoi: Yes, the 6-5, 259-pound sophomore is emerging from the shadows.
“He’s a really long guy,” Cronin said. “We like longer ends. There are rarely any [holding] penalties called these days, so a guy who can lock out and keep people away from them has a lot of value. He’s been a lot more physical lately, and he gives people problems because of his length.”
n Arnold Blackmon: All the 6-1, 243-pound senior has done in camp is turn in a big play every so often. In the first of Wednesday’s two practices, he batted a pass to himself in what would have been a defensive touchdown.
“Arnold Blackmon’s a senior, and sometimes it hits those guys — ‘holy crap, this is it!’ ” Cronin said. “He’s really had a nice camp so far. He’s more focused, I think. He doesn’t want to end his last season as a backup.”
n Gary Thompson: About the same size as Blackmon but with faster wheels, the sophomore has been a minor mystery. No. 59 hasn’t been seen nearly as much time as expected.
“Actually, he’s had a couple of good days,” Cronin said. “We’re trying to fine-tune some stuff with him that we think has kind of taken him away from some of the stuff he’s done from a speed-rush standpoint.
“You saw a little bit of that [Tuesday]. He’s nursing something right now, so we’re just being smart with him. But when he does go, we need to continue to see that.
“He’s got to be a consistently explosive guy — he’s a sub-11 [second] 100-meter guy in high school. He needs to play with a great deal of speed all the time, and when that happens we all know he’s good enough.”
That’s what Daniel faces in his continuing battle to leave all doubts in the dust. He’s ready.
“It’s exciting. I’m really excited,” he said. “Hard work does pay off; that’s the big thing.”
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.