The Thundering Word: Young talent impresses Doc as spring ends


HUNTINGTON– Through 15 workouts over 33 days, Doc Holliday has seen it all … of Marshall’s 2016 football spring practice.

The Herd put a cap on Holliday’s seventh spring as MU coach with Saturday’s Green-White scrimmage. The veteran coach – who celebrated his 59th birthday on April 21, with Practice No. 11 that day – said he liked plenty over the five weeks.

“We had some really good young people out there,” Holliday said. “The team’s gotten a lot younger and I got a heck of a lot older. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for me. It’s a good thing for the team. I’m not sure it’s a good thing for me.”

Holliday said it may have been the best spring for a defense in his seven years. He attributed some of that to multiple first-unit offensive line absences due to injuries and rehabbing, but Holliday said the talent in defensive coordinator Chuck Heater’s unit “is there, make no mistake about it.”

The season opens Sept. 10 with a visit from Morgan State, and the Herd figures to have no more than two or three senior starters on defense. Holliday isn’t fretting about that.

“I think, at the end of the day, spring is the time when you want to develop your football team, and it’s really, really important for the young players,” said Holliday, whose last three teams are 33-8. “And the one thing I got coming out of this spring was that we have some really, really talented young guys.

“If you really take a look at us, we’re young, but we’re talented.”

Asked to name some players who in particular caught his attention, Holliday didn’t hesitate.

“At linebacker, there’s the addition of (Arizona State transfer) Davon Durant – he’s going to be a tremendous player – along with Frankie Hernandez, a young guy really starting to come along,” Holliday said. “Chase Hancock is another guy who like the other two, continually caught my eye this spring.

MUFB 2016 4-30, Spring Game by Braxton Crisp, Chase Litton passes 14-of-27, int, TD, 161 yards

Chase Litton throws during the Green-White Game as defensive lineman (98) Jason Smith rushes and linebacker (36) Davon Durant drops in coverage. (HI photo by Braxton Crisp)

“On the defensive line, inside, we had some concerns with replacing (Steve) Dillon, Jarquez (Samuel) and ‘Rico’ Williams, but I just don’t see any drop off there. None. I see young, really talented guys. Nyquan Harris continued to come along. Tomell One, Jason Smith, they had great springs and in a couple weeks we’ll add a couple more guys to that group will help us tremendously.

“Defensive end, we’re back intact (with top three Gary Thompson, Ryan Bee and Blake Keller), and then when you add new talent in (redshirt freshmen) Ty Tyler and Damien Dozier in there, you’ve got some really good young people who will help.

“In the secondary, corner Chris Jackson, a true freshman – just got here in January – really played well. And at safety and nickel, (junior college transfer) CJ Reavis is a newcomer who showed us a lot … At the end of the day, we’ve really improved our defensive talent, and that showed a lot this spring.”

MUFB 2016 4-30, Spring Game by Braxton Crisp, Chris Jackson

True freshman corner Chris Jackson has gone from being in high school in December to a starting corner for the Herd at the end of 15 days of spring practice. (HI photo by Braxton Crisp)

Offensively, Holliday didn’t have as many names to name “because there were so many more bodies out there on defense than on offense, but in another few weeks, we’ll add to that offense.” He said that because of those missing pieces, others got valuable reps, while others stepped up.

“Among the receivers, Michael Clark, we noticed him a lot on the Scout Team last season (after the former St. Francis basketball player joined the program), and he’s a guy we’re going to count on heavily,” the Herd coach said. “He’s had a good spring and he’s got to continue to improve.

“The backs are still young, with Hyleck Foster and Keion Davis. They both continue to improve, and Tony Pittman … unfortunately he missed a couple of weeks of spring, but we know what he can do.”

MUFB 2016 4-30, Spring Game by Braxton Crisp, 7-Michael Clark and 3-Chris Jackson

Michael Clark (7) battles Chris Jackson (3) as the two young players were outstanding in the Green-White Game. Jackson broke up two passes (including this one) while Clark caught three passes for 33 yards (including a 21-yard touchdown). (HI photo by Braxton Crisp)

In the April 23 intrasquad scrimmage, four of the five projected starting offensive linemen sat out. And that wasn’t an exception this spring for the Herd.

“We learned that with the linemen, we’ve got some good young ones,” Holliday said. “Levi Brown went in there, a freshman, and played with the first unit all spring because of injuries and he held his own. It just showed us he’s going to be a great asset down the road.

“Alex Locklear is another good young player, got a lot of reps. Brown and Locklear have never played before, but they are going to be tremendous players for us. The number of reps they got this spring will really help them, and our depth, when we get to August.”

On special teams, Holliday is replacing graduated punter/holder Tyler Williams with junior Kaare Vedvik, and four-year snapper Matt Cincotta with walk-on Zach Wood. The place-kicking battle between Nick Smith and Amoreto Curraj will resume in August – and perhaps beyond – for a second straight year, Holliday said.

“We lost a tremendous punter in Tyler and long snapper. Cincotta didn’t have a bad snap in four years – and, believe me, that’s hard to do. Zach Wood has done a great job snapping this spring.

“Vedvik is a very good athlete and picked it up fast as a holder. Punting, no doubt he’s got tremendous leg, but he’s got to become more consistent. I do like what I’ve seen from him so far. The two kickers have got to continue to get better. I know both have the talent, and as we move into the fall they’ll continue to compete.”

In the return game, the Herd lost record-setting 2015 senior Deandre Reaves, the Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Year. Holliday said some of the candidates to succeed Reaves won’t be on campus until June … as 2016 recruits.

MUFB 2016 4-30, Spring Game by Braxton Crisp, 2-Hyleck Foster fielding punts

Hyleck Foster comes out of the spring as the No. 1 running back for the Herd, and he might be one of the answers in the Herd’s return game – fielding this punt on Saturday. (HI photo by Braxton Crisp)

“On campus right now, we have Gator Green, Foster and Davis, but we’re hopeful in June to add two or three who have capabilities in the return game, to provide more speed and athleticism there,” Holliday said.

“Willie Johnson, a receiver from Florida, and Brandon Rodgers, a receiver from Alabama, are two guys we signed who have tremendous track times – 10.6 (seconds) or better (in the 100). We’ll see what they can do in the return game in camp, too.”

Holliday was ready to close the book on spring drills.

“It may have been our best defensive spring,” he said. “Guys jumped out like Chris Jackson, Durant, Hernandez, Ty Tyler, Reavis, those inside guys on the defensive front. We have a lot of really good, young talent. We need to continue to get better, but there’s a lot I saw that I really liked out there.”

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