Dave Weekley: In Defense of the Herd Defense

Don't look now, but the so-called Achilles Heel of the Marshall Thundering Herd is beginning to heal up. After serving as college football's version of a sieve last season and a enduring a nationally-televised early September team-wide meltdown on how not to tackle the "Untouchables (Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones)" at currently undefeated and third-ranked Virginia Tech, the Herd defense is starting to show signs of life.

In their last two games against Buffalo and Troy State, Marshall's first team defense has surrendered just one touchdown-a late fourth quarter score in the Herd's 24-7 Homecoming domination of the Trojans from Troy, Alabama.

"When we click like that, we're pretty good," said Marshall coach Bob Pruett in a rare moment of understatement.

As long as Byron Leftwich is around to trigger Marshall's point-a-minute offense, you won't hear too much talk about the Herd defense at your corner bar this week-but you should. It hasn't always been like this. It was just three years ago that Marshall's defense-led by the likes of John Grace, Andre O'Neal and Rogers Beckett among others-put constant fear into the minds of enemy ball carriers.

It's been three years since that 1999 Marshall team posted a unbeaten record, a top ten finish and a Motor City Bowl victory over BYU in a game that featured no Cougars touchdowns. It's also been three years since Marshall's last shutout, a 34-0 blanking of Temple. Senior cornerback Yancey Satterwhite felt that the Herd's 41-game streak without a shutout was going to end two weeks against Buffalo after Marshall built a 59-0 lead late in the third quarter against the hapless Bulls.

"I guess we could call that a moral goose egg," reasoned Satterwhite of the improving efforts of Marshall's first team defense. "Our guys shut them down when we were out there. But it's a team game and our young guys just have to know what to do when they get in there."

Ah, good point Yancey, the young guys indeed.

Marshall's future defensive prospects look bright. This year's edition of the Herd has 15 fifth-year seniors, but only five of them are defensive starters: secondary standouts Yancey Satterwhite, Terence Tarpley and Chris Crocker, along with tackle Orlando Washington and linebacker Duran Smith. Among those getting critical snaps this season that will pay dividends for the next two years include the likes of athletic linebackers Donte Newsome and J.T. Rembert, aggressive and physical lineman Jonathan Goddard and Jamus Martin, not to mention emerging star cornerback Roberto Terrell.

Marshall's youthful, speed-laden defense is coming on quickly and they will become the talk of the town-eventually. Be ahead of the curve and learn their names and numbers, you can be sure that the Herd's opponents will be doing the same.

After his impressive performances in New Jersey's recent exhibition games, it's no longer a question of whether or not former Marshall forward Tamar Slay will earn a Nets roster spot, but rather, he can continue to get quality minutes once the defending NBA Eastern Conference champs begin the regular season? In fact, Slay has looked so good in the pre-season that the he's virtually assured of a roster spot and the battle for the final slot on the Nets 12-man active roster is a three-man fight between Brandon Armstrong, Brian Scalabrine and former UConn forward Donny Marshall. Slay must have done a double-take last week at practice when the Nets signed former Ball State center Lonnie Smith as a free agent for more depth in the paint. Smith is considered one of the longest of the long shots to stick with the Nets once the regular season begins.

Two of New Jersey's exhibition games with the Boston Celtics were regionally televised last week and there were some very interested viewers who tuned in on Direct TV in Huntington to watch Tamar Slay in action. Slay is turning into quite a story with the New York media as he continues his quest to go from relatively unheralded late second round pick to solid contributor on one of the NBA's elite teams.

"I watched him last (Tuesday) night," said Marshall assistant Jeff Boals. "They have been using him (Slay) at the shooting guard slot and he's a tough matchup with his size. I've spoken to (Nets GM) Rod Thorn and (Nets coach) Byron Scott and they love his potential."

One of the keys into the Nets positive response to Slay's play in training camp and in pre-season games has been not just the number of minutes he's been seeing on the court, but the quality of those minutes. Slay has played 20 or more minutes in each of the Nets last three exhibition games, but while the majority of other roster hopefuls are battling for the coaches' eye at garbage time late in the second half, Slay has seen additional minutes with many of the Nets veterans. After watching Slay at the Cam Henderson Center the past four years, it's still a bit disconcerting to see him guard established NBA stars like the Celtics Paul Pierce. It's still hard to believe when you see Slay take the floor with a Nets lineup featuring the likes of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin or other New Jersey newcomers like Rodney Rodgers and Dikembe Mutombo.

Right now Tamar Slay is living a dream, a dream of playing in the NBA. It's a dream that began to take shape at Marshall and many Herd basketball fans are living it-with him.

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