By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Marshall’s defense has improved dramatically over last year, leading Conference USA in scoring defense (18.3 points per game) and total defense (301.5 yards allowed per game).
But coach Doc Holliday says the Thundering Herd will face a tough challenge when it visits Middle Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on Fox Sports 1. In particular, Holliday says left guard Josh Walker and left tackle Darius Johnson “are going to play in the NFL one day.”
Walker is a 6-foot-5, 323-pound redshirt junior who has made 28 starts in his career. Johnson (6-3, 293) is a redshirt sophomore who has started all 19 games since he began his career last season.
“To be honest, the left side of their offensive line will be the best offensive line we’ve played against,” Holliday said. “(Walker and Johnson) are excellent. I’m not saying that because we are playing them; just go watch them on film. They are extremely good and extremely physical.
“I think the guys they’ve plugged in at right guard, right tackle and center have played well, but that left side of their line has played a lot of football. They’re really good players. That will be a challenge for our guys, but our defensive line has to play well, because it starts up front physically and they will have to be physical to be able to play with these guys.”
Holliday knows there is always the possibility of Walker and Johnson moving over, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“Well, they’ve had the opportunity to do that the last three games, and they didn’t do it,” he said. “It’s not like that center and right guard are playing for the first time. They played the last three games. I think it’s the third game in a row that the freshman right guard, Daniel Stephens, will start. He’s gotten his feet wet and done some really good things.
“I don’t see them changing now at this point. That left side will be a challenge for us and they play extremely well.”
It’s been a frustrating season for Marshall running back Kevin Grooms.
Last season’s C-USA Freshman of the Year has been slowed by an ankle injury that has limited him to four games, none of them starts. He has 46 carries for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
He scored his second TD in the Herd’s 24-23 win over Florida Atlantic Oct. 12. Holliday hopes that will springboard Grooms back into action.
“It’s been difficult for all of us mentally, because he is a good player and he is very explosive,” Holliday said. “You want to see him back to where he was. I’m seeing more of that. I saw a little bit of it at FAU and he has had a week and a half since then. He’s going to be a whole lot healthier going into Thursday night than what he has been. I’m anxious to go watch him play because when he is healthy he is an outstanding player. I think it’s harder for a skill guy to come back quick from those types of injuries.”
Holliday talked about defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow, who also has missed two games with the same injury that has plagued Grooms, but has been able to be more productive because of his position.
“He’s gone in there and just played, but it’s different with a defensive lineman than it is with a skill player,” Holliday said. “It is magnified when you are a tailback, wideout or skill guy who has to make all these cuts and moves. Grooms is a lot closer now than what he was and that is good for us.”
Marshall will see a familiar face on the opposing sideline in MTSU offensive line coach Geep Wade. He held the same position last season in Huntington.
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