HUNTINGTON — Of Marshall’s infusion of five midyear junior-college transfers, three play defense.
Two of those play linebacker — and at times this spring, they’ve comprised two-thirds of the first unit. When Donyae Moody and Artis Johnson played on the top unit, they generally flank middle linebacker Chase Hancock.
Don’t put that in stone. For one thing, the season opener is 133 days from Friday. For another, 2016 nonqualifier Jaquan Yulee is expected to begin his Thundering Herd career this summer.
But for now, Johnson and Moody are sharing a bright spotlight in spring drills. As with most midyear imports, they will carry a considerable advantage into the fall.
“At Marshall, to get a good midyear junior-college kid, that’s good recruiting, probably a little lucky,” said defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. “All three guys [including cornerback Kereon Merrell] are going to be guys we hope are going to play a role for us, have adapted well and we’re counting on them.
“They’ve got some developing, but they’re in the mix as opposed to somebody who shows up in June or July. They’ve had a good winter and they’ve done a good job, all three of those guys have.”
Johnson, listed at 6-foot-1, 211 pounds, is a Texas native who played at Reedley College, 20 miles southeast of Fresno, California. He was ranked the 10th-best junior-college safety by Scout, but safeties often become linebackers in the Herd’s philosophy, which emphasizes speed over size.
He was versatile enough to run for two touchdowns and throw for another last year, and played “wildcat” quarterback and returned kicks.
Moody and Johnson are roommates with good reason, as they went against each other in the California juco circuit. Playing for Salinas-based Hartnell College, Scout had Johnson as the fifth-best inside linebacker and 49th-best overall juco prospect.
Moody hails from Baltimore, and said he only played football his senior year in high school. Fortunately, the 6-2, 226-pounder said he knew quite a few players who went west from the Baltimore area, so that combated homesickness.
Another thing Moody and Johnson have in common: an unsolicited respect for Hancock. The Beckley native has crossed that chasm from being a youngster to one of the veterans of the linebackers’ room, and his influence is critical to reversing the defense’s fortunes.
“He’s been here a lot, so he knows the whole format of the defense,” Moody said. “He actually does slow the game down a lot, because of who he is.”
Both say they’ve adjusted to the speed of the game, which is certainly easier for a juco prospect than a freshman out of high school. They like to hit somebody, and there isn’t a shortage of contact this spring.
By the Herd’s 11th spring practice, both have figured out that they need to improve to fully integrate themselves into the major-college game.
“Probably awareness, and probably using my hands more,” Johnson said. “As far as making contact, getting the [blocker] off of you, you use your hands [more] in the game of football.”
Moody is still getting used to the regimen of college ball.
“The daily schedule, going to class going to football practice, going to workouts,” he said. “We didn’t have to do that at Hartnell, we just did school and football. Now we do school, football, tutoring, stuff like that, weightlifting.”
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With a forecast calling for 100 percent chance of rain and temperatures in the mid-50s if that high, MU is making contingency plans to move the Big Green Scrimmage indoors to the Cline Athletic Complex, on the east side of the stadium.
Fans will be allowed, which isn’t the case for other practices, and there is seating for perhaps 1,000 people. Parking would be $20 in the university-owned lots, and admission was going to be free all along.
“We’re going to scrimmage live at least 100 plays, which is great,” said Herd coach Doc Holliday. “Our fan base will be able to see scrimmage situations, good on good, but also will get the opportunity to watch our coaches teach.”
It will be the 12th of MU’s 15 practices.