EDITOR’S NOTE: HD Media Marshall sports writer Grant Traylor counts down his 10 most important players on the Thundering Herd roster for the 2020 season.
HUNTINGTON — Each year, there is a player or two within each football program who reaches their senior season and, suddenly, the light comes on inside them.
For Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert, one player and one alone came to mind: cornerback Jaylon McClain-Sapp.
In terms of game experience, only safety Nazeeh Johnson has been in more games on the defensive side than McClain-Sapp’s 28 games played. And Lambert feels that no one within the secondary has the talent level and measurables that McClain-Sapp brings to the table.
In the past, McClain-Sapp’s biggest issue has been his own focus, whether being in the proverbial doghouse with the coaches or getting outperformed at times.
However, Lambert said he’s seen a new version of McClain-Sapp since the team returned following the bowl loss in January. It’s a demeanor that has him excited to see what’s in store for 2020.
“Defensively, he’s that guy that I’m like, ‘This guy can have one of those special years,’ ” Lambert said. “It’s just the way he’s handling his business and is really focused. He graduated in spring and he’s really on top of stuff right now. I think he sees that now’s his time. He’s a senior and the door is wide open for him to break it down. He’s the breakout guy for us.”
Lambert said the demeanor that was with McClain-Sapp in the winter weightlifting period had him excited to see what emerged in the spring. Unfortunately for Lambert, COVID-19 shut down spring practice three days before its scheduled start and the coaches didn’t see the players for nearly three months after that.
However, Lambert said McClain-Sapp kept the momentum he built in winter when he returned for the summer period.
With football now his focus after graduation, the 5-foot-11, 179-pound native of Jacksonville, Florida, is looking to solidify a secondary that, despite the loss of two experienced cornerbacks, could be a strength of the team.
“He’s the guy that I think has a huge ceiling and, if he’ll continue on that track, he’s been blessed athletically,” Lambert said. “He’s got a lot of talent and I like where he is right now.”
McClain-Sapp becomes one of the most important players to the defense because his emergence could very well dictate what Lambert does in some other areas with his scheme to get the best 11 guys on the field.
Safety Micah Abraham is also likely to see some time at cornerback in the early part of camp, which opens the door for several combinations with him, McClain-Sapp and Steven Gilmore. That also would create some flexibility because Gilmore could move to the nickel spot, which is something that aids the defense tremendously in coverage situations.