Herd 'baby backs' share the load
HUNTINGTON - Steward Butler wasn't trying to even the score with Marshall running mates Kevin Grooms and Remi Watson last weekend, but he still wanted to show he was alive and well.
At Southern Mississippi, Butler had watched Grooms blow through the Golden Eagles' defense for a 64-yard touchdown run, and follow it up with an 11-yard score. Watson scored from the 3-yard line way back in the first quarter of the Thundering Herd's 59-24 runaway win.
Now it was Butler's turn. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman found a hole, accelerated through it and then really stepped on the gas. Perhaps three defenders were "in the frame" with Butler initially, but they seemed to fall backward.
"When I get past the second line, I've got to go score," Butler said. "It's the only thing on my minds, so I don't think anybody can catch me once I get past the second line."
After Butler completed his 54-yard scamper, he had three TDs for the season - the others were from 8 yards against Western Carolina and 57 against Rice. But he is still staring up at Grooms' six and Watson's five TDs.
But there really isn't a race, except against opposing defenses. And on one of the nation's most productive offenses, the freshman "baby backs" are more or less winning. The Herd is fourth in Conference USA rushing, two spots ahead of upcoming opponent Central Florida. The Herd averages 178.4 rushing yards per game, and the Knights 169.3.
The Herd's 17 rushing touchdowns are second in the league, only behind Tulsa's 27. But that's not the proper perspective.
Consider this: Those 17 rushing TDs are more than Marshall had in the 2010 and 2011 seasons combined, and more than the season totals of half the last 10 seasons. And remember, there are at least five games left, starting with Saturday night's bout with UCF.
Kickoff is at 8 p.m., with the game airing on CBS Sports Network.
"We could say what great offensive minds we have up there in the [coaches] box, but we have great players," Herd coach Doc Holliday said Tuesday. "Those two freshman running backs [Butler, Grooms] have made a difference. The offensive line is playing better now than the whole time I've been here. They've come a long way and those receivers are blocking their tails off."
Grooms, Butler and Watson will tell you it's not about the numbers, but here they are: Grooms is leading the way with 431 yards, 6.6 per carry; Butler has gained 392, 5.8 per carry; and Watson has 253, 5.4 per carry. But before you call Watson a "slacker," remember this: He has been caught for a loss exactly one time, late in the first quarter against Southern Miss.
Watson scored his touchdown a few plays later, so he can joke about it: "My coach [JuJuan Seider] made it a point that I wasn't the only one tackled for a loss. He jinxed me."
The division of work assures they won't contend for the league's individual rushing lead (though Grooms is sixth), but then again, that's not the issue. They do have a little fun with each other, though.
"They tease each other all the time," Holliday said. "Of course, [Butler and Grooms] tell Remi he would have gotten caught in those two situations [long TD runs]."
Watson can take it, though. He knows they have the fast wheels to back up their fast smack.
"When they get their foot in the ground and go north you get to see their 4.3, 4.2 speed," Watson said. "Both of them break off long runs, and they just look pretty. I just laugh when they get out in the open - I'm like, 'Y'all ain't catching them.'"
Holliday's offensive coordinator, Bill Legg, praised the lesser-discussed part of the freshman backs' work.
"I didn't worry so much about the run game, and how it would progress with the three young guys," Legg said. "The thing that you worry about is pass protection. And that's the thing I've been extremely pleased with is how well they've picked up who they're responsible for when they're involved in pass protection.
"You don't have to coach running backs really hard when it comes to running the football. It's the other things - the footwork to the exchange point, it's where the track is, it's understanding, 'I'm supposed to read this block first' in the run game. From there, if they've got it, they've got it.
"And we've got a lot of guys who are pretty good. You just can't play them all. But it's the passing game that takes the longest, and they've done a really good job."
On the injury front, Holliday said Jarquez Samuel should be back from missing the Southern Miss game, and Andre Snipes-Booker should return from his mid-game injury.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.