HUNTINGTON — Marshall players were asked Monday to name a player that they couldn’t wait to see in a game scenario this week.
As it turned out, the answers were the same whether asking offensive or defensive players.
That player? Strong safety Derrek Pitts, who is listed on the depth chart as a starter for the Thundering Herd’s opener Saturday against Eastern Kentucky.
As teammates pointed out, Pitts is listed as a starter for good reason.
“He’s just been flying around, he’s been aggressive — a ballhawk,” Marshall senior defensive back Nazeeh Johnson said. “I want to see him come down here and make some plays.”
Johnson has the benefit of being in the same position room as Pitts, which means they get to break down film of opponents and themselves each day.
However, the truest compliments come from those on the offensive side of the ball, who say the 6-foot, 187-pound Dunbar native is an absolutely nightmare to face in practice.
“He’s able to cover the field so well,” Marshall running back Brenden Knox said. “He’s shown that through camp and stuff — his ability to cover from sideline to sideline and cover a lot of ground. That’s really difficult to do in the position he’s at. I feel like he’s excelled at that and shown it consistently over practice.”
Perhaps no one has a better perspective on Pitts’ potential impact for the Herd than newly minted starting quarterback Grant Wells, who faced Pitts as a high school rival when Wells played for George Washington and Pitts played for South Charleston.
Even though they’ve again gone against each other during the last six weeks in preparation for the season, Wells said that is to his benefit, as is wearing the same jersey on game day now.
“I’ve played against him for a long time and it’s finally good to be wearing the same uniform as him,” Wells said. “He’s made some outstanding plays in practice and it’s been great to go against him because he has great potential to be one of the best defensive backs in Conference USA.”
Last season, Pitts appeared in just three games with Marshall after being a late addition to the roster following his transfer from West Virginia.
Now he’s in line to etch his name into his own category — players who have started at both West Virginia and Marshall.
In 2018, Pitts started two games while appearing in 12 for the Mountaineers. He showed that he can be a playmaker, returning a blocked kick for a touchdown, forcing a fumble and registering an interception.
That ball-hawking nature has shown itself in camp and impressed the coaches, according to Herd head coach Doc Holliday.
“Pitts has had an excellent camp,” Holliday said. “This time last year, he was just getting here and feeling his way and that type of thing. He’s been with us throughout a whole winter and with us for preseason and he’s playing his best football right now.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Pitts’ game is his ability to defend the run and be active at the line of scrimmage.
Coming into this week’s contest against Eastern Kentucky, which rushed for more than 200 yards a game last season, that activity near the line of scrimmage is crucial, Holliday said.
“You’re going to have to get the safeties involved with the run-support fits in order to get this thing stopped,” Holliday said. “We’ll be prepared for that. Pitts has the ability to do that, along with some of our other safeties.”
Pitts has one of the stranger timelines in college football. Despite already playing in parts of three seasons, he still has three years of eligibility remaining, thanks to creativity and NCAA rulings.
Pitts played for two seasons at West Virginia, 2017 and 2018, before transferring to Marshall in August 2019, when he was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.
Pitts appeared in three games for the Herd last season before shutting it down for the year to preserve a year of eligibility under NCAA legislation that players could play in up to four games and still retain their redshirt.
That appears to have worked wonders for the Herd because of further NCAA legislation surrounding COVID-19, which has granted an extra year of eligibility to all 2020-21 fall student-athletes.
That means Pitts has this year and two more seasons to play with the Herd.