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Herd Defense Changes Name To Something Hotter

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Marshall's defense allowed 69 points to West Virginia to open the 2012 season and never stiffened enough to contend for a conference title, leading to the hiring of Chuck Heater as defensive coordinator. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.
Marshall's defense allowed 69 points to West Virginia to open the 2012 season and never stiffened enough to contend for a conference title, leading to the hiring of Chuck Heater as defensive coordinator. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.

During the 2012 season, the Thundering Herd’s high-flying offense was one of the best in college football. The team ranked No. 6 in total offense with more than 534 yards per game and No. 1 in passing offense with 365 yards per game.

Yet the team went a disappointing 5-7 and much of that can be put on the team's defense. The Thundering Herd defense allowed more than 43 points per game last season, including more than 50 points five times and more than 60 points in the season's first and last games (West Virginia and East Carolina).

To try to fix the problem, coach Doc Holliday hired Chuck Heater to take over the defense. Not halfway through the Herd’s fall practices, Heater's players are embracing his coaching.

“Since we’ve got a coach named Heater, I like to say we’ve got the heat going,” redshirt senior defensive end Alex Bazzie said. “A lot of guys are feeling that vibe within themselves so they’re coming out here with a lot of energy.”

Heater, most recently the defensive coordinator at Temple, brings 37 years of coaching experience to the Herd. His coaching stops include Colorado, Colorado State, Northern Arizona, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Toledo, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Florida. At Florida, Heater was part of the 2007 and 2009 national championship teams alongside his new boss, Doc Holliday.

“Doc was the reason I came to Marshall,” Heater said during spring practice. “I know Doc and I’m at the stage in my career where I like working with people I know if I have the choice.

“I also thought it was an opportunity to maybe do something special and get it going here. Since the offense is so outstanding, if we play better defense we have the chance to win a lot of games.”

For the Herd’s defensive players, the difference Heater makes is night and day.

“His intensity and his aggressiveness set him apart,” Bazzie said. “He allows us to just go play football and not really think too much. Of course you have to know the coaching and what play to run, but besides that it’s just be aggressive and play football.”

Said redshirt sophomore transfer safety Taj Letman: “Coach Heater is probably my first real defensive coach who knows exactly what he’s doing. I call him 'The Guru.' He’s had a lot of players he’s transformed into great players on and above. He’s kind of tough on me sometimes because he expects more out of me, but he knows what he’s doing so I just do what he says, step by step.”

In the previous defensive scheme the Herd ran primarily a soft zone coverage with corners playing almost 10 yards off the ball, allowing opposing teams to complete short passes. Heater has geared the schemes to fit the personnel.

“Coach Heater likes to run man because our corners can cover very well, so that’s an advantage for us,” redshirt junior cornerback Darryl Roberts (known to coaches and fans as Swagg D) said. “We can match up well in nickel or even dime.”

Coach Heater thinks the best way to prepare for the pass-happy Conference USA is to go up against perhaps the best offense it will see all season: its own.

“You’ve got a lot of teams that play similar to how we play, with fast tempo and spread offense, so we’ve seen those and we can systematically figure out how to deal with it,” Heater said. “It’s good our offense does it because it puts us in those uncomfortable situations we run into in games.”

The team's first fall scrimmage showed progress. The defense mostly checked the first-team offense, including reigning C-USA MVP QB Rakeem Cato, who managed to complete 10-of-16 passes for 97 yards and an interception. Backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, who could start for many C-USA squads, did no better, completing 9-of-18 for 69 yards and an interception. The third- and fourth-string quarterbacks combined to complete 6-of-15 passes for 127 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

“Yesterday we did good but there’s plenty of room to get better,” junior middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes said after the scrimmage. “We watched film and (coach Heater) told us what plays we did good and what plays we didn’t.”

“They’re competing every down and that’s what Chuck (Heater) brings," Holliday said. “He expects them to win every down and that’s what they’re goal is. They go out and play extremely hard and extremely physical.”

The Thundering Herd defense will face its first real test when the Red Hawks of Miami (OH) visit Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Aug. 31.