HUNTINGTON — Among the 24 players from Florida on the Marshall football roster for the St. Petersburg Bowl, there are seven who call home within an hour’s drive to Tropicana Field.
That list includes quarterback Chase Litton and kickoff man Amoreto Curraj (Tampa), running back Remi Watson and offensive tackle Fred Binot (Lakeland) and defensive end Blake Keller (Bradenton).
Then, there is another one who could probably walk to the game, if he wanted. He is really from the neighborhood.
It’s sophomore wide receiver Michael Clark. He’s the only Herd player from St. Petersburg, and his 18th Street South home is only 4.9 miles to “The Trop.”
“Less than a 15-minute drive,” Clark said. “I’ve been there a bunch of times for (Tampa Bay Rays) baseball and the bowl games.
He won’t play in the bowl, however. Clark’s story is a different one from his teammates, and not just because he’s a 6-foot-7 receiver.
A year ago tonight, he was a 19-year-old freshman backup riding a bus with the St. Francis (Pa.) basketball team from Pittsburgh back to campus in Loretto, Pa., following a 67-52 Red Flash victory at Duquesne.
Until he joined Coach Doc Holliday’s program in mid-August — during the second week of preseason camp — he hadn’t played football since the 2010 season, when he was a freshman at Tampa Catholic High School.
While sitting out as a Division I transfer this season, Clark obviously has assimilated himself into the Herd. At last weekend’s team banquet, he was presented the 2015 Defensive Scout Team Award for the “looks” he gives the Marshall starting defense in practice.
Not bad for a guy who is on his fifth school since the start of his high school 10th grade year.
Clark’s connection to Marshall prior to his arrival was Litton, the true freshman who back in camp was still a third-stringer. The two, as youngsters, had played AAU basketball as teammates in Tampa. And while Litton was a two-sport star in high school, Clark gave up football not long before his family moved from Tampa to St. Pete, two weeks into his sophomore year.
“I knew Chase most of the time we were in Tampa as kids,” Clark said. “We played AAU basketball against each other, and then eventually on the same team, and then more years went by and we played for different teams.
“In my freshman year I stopped playing football, and he went to Wharton (High). I attended Catholic. I decided to take basketball seriously in my sophomore year and then ended up going to St. Francis. I didn’t play football again, didn’t think I would.”
Clark moved from Tampa Catholic to Boca Ciega High in St. Petersburg, then transferred for his senior year to Lakewood High. As a St. Francis freshman last season, Clark played 43 minutes in 12 games, scoring six points with six rebounds. Then, he decided to return to football.
“Really, it was just finding my identity my freshman year in college,” the soft-spoken Clark said. “I figured out that’s what I really wanted to do. I started asking questions and then taking actions instead of asking questions.
“I told my coach (SFU’s Rob Krimmel) what I wanted to do; I wanted to play football. He was on my side, a really good guy, didn’t try to talk me out of it. He helped me do what I needed to do, finish my grades. I was released, went home, started workouts.”
Litton recommended Clark to Holliday. “He’s a great kid,” the Herd coach said. As a receiver, Clark remains a work in progress, and he’s been getting extra solo work after Marshall’s bowl practices in the indoor facility.
“We don’t know yet,” Herd receivers coach Mike Furrey said when asked about Clark. “He’s big (200 pounds), tall, long, talented, catches the ball really well — and naturally. But it’s been a long time since he really played in a game, and with real live bullets.
“Right now, he’s just reading plays off a card. So, we’ll find out more in the spring.”
Clark, born in Salem, Mass., moved to the Tampa Bay area with his family when he was 8. He said that during his high school years, he consistently received comments from coaches and friends — “peer pressure stuff” — about not playing football. But he enjoyed basketball.
Now 20 and in a pre-computer science track at MU, Clark said he began to look at what could be rather than what was.
“I looked at it that it just came down to a business decision for me,” Clark said. “What was better off for me in the long term? My goal for basketball was probably to play two or three years and then go overseas, and that was my dream.
“But with that, I felt I was selling myself short. I was asking myself questions and then football came up. A lot of people around me supported me and I was pretty decent at this in high school when I quit playing, so I’m catching back up.”
Clark said he had little choice in that regard, and that contributed to getting the Scout Team honor.
“The defense helped me out a lot because those guys are the starting cornerbacks and you’re going against them every single day,” he said. “You can’t slack off. Because if I do, they’ll push you to the ground and make a play on me, so each and every day I had to come in and challenge them and they’d challenge me. And it’s a mutual respect because we’re all out there trying to make one another into better players.”
Clark said he hasn’t second-guessed his decision to leave basketball behind.
“Football, the first day I got here, the music playing, just the energy on the field — I missed everything about it,” he said. “In the drills, I felt really comfortable, but once I got onto the field, it was kind of a shock.
“The first day I was here, they made me practice, and I think I dropped the first ball thrown to me. But day-by-day, I got more comfortable and they saw what I can do.”
And in the future, the Herd figures that it can get more from Clark than good directions to “The Trop.”
St. Petersburg Bowl
With the St. Petersburg Bowl approaching on Saturday, most of the talk among Marshall’s football players about their Dec. 26 opponent at Tropicana Field has focused on two items.
The first is Connecticut’s defense, which ranks just behind the Herd in FBS scoring defense, but 20 yards per game better than Marshall in total defense.
The other fact is that the Huskies are indeed husky.
“Defensively, they do a lot of odd front, have a really good nose guard (redshirt senior Julian Campeni) who will be lining up over me, and they’re big guys,” Marshall junior center Michael Selby said. “We’ve played some big guys before and we’ve just got to go to work, keep maturing because we’re still a young offensive line. We have to just keep getting better.”
Herd redshirt senior left guard Sebastian Johansson said the Huskies were impressive in more than holding American Athletic Conference champ and Peach Bowl-bound Houston to one offensive touchdown in the Cougars’ only loss.
“I look at them as an offensive lineman, and they’re a very strong and physical team,” Johansson said of the 6-6 Huskies. “Their guys in the box are impressive. The nose guard is very good and he uses a benching kind of technique to get into you, and their linebackers come down pretty well.
“It’s going to be a physical game for four quarters – that’s what I’ve got the mindset on … They’re kind of similar to Purdue in some aspects, some not, but it’s just a really physical football game we’re looking at.”
The comparison to Purdue — Marshall came from behind in the fourth quarter for a 41-31 season-opening win over the Boilermakers – was made by multiple Herd players. And it’s a valid impression.
Using the five-man offensive fronts, Purdue averaged 6 feet 4, 302 pounds for its five against the Herd. UConn’s offensive line averages 6-5 1/2, 307. On defense, the four-man Boilermakers front averaged 6-3 3/4, 268, while the Huskies’ average is 6-3, 289. At linebacker, Purdue’s 245-pound average is about 9 pounds more than UConn’s.
UConn ranks 17th nationally in scoring defense at 19.8 points per game, while the Herd is 14th at 18.4. In total defense, Connecticut is No. 33 (352.3-yard average), and Marshall is No. 48 (372.3).
“They’ve got a great defense, with a big front seven,” Herd sophomore tight end Ryan Yurachek opined about UConn. “They’ve caused (24) turnovers this year and they don’t allow people to score a lot. They’ve had a lot of 7-3 (win over Tulane), 9-6 games (loss at Missouri).
“I think they held Missouri to nine points, and when you see that the number jumps out to you. Their defense is sound for sure. They’ve got a lot of veteran guys and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
Helmets … shoulder pads … caps … gowns … ?
With the FBS bowl season beginning Saturday, many of the players on the 80 teams in the 40 games (plus a CFP Championship) have gained their undergraduate degrees. And on that list of teams, Marshall proudly ranks in a tie for fifth place, with 20 graduates on the roster for the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Alabama leads the “bowl graduates” list with 29, followed by Temple (26), Kansas State (22), Cincinnati (21), Marshall and Middle Tennessee (20), Auburn and Tennessee (18), West Virginia (17) and TCU and Wisconsin (16).
The Herd played the 2015 regular season with 13 players already owning their MU undergraduate degrees – a record for a Marshall football team — and seven more finished their undergraduate work in the just-completed fall semester (2015).
Marshall had five 2015 seniors (athletic eligibility) graduate in December 2014 – wide receiver Davonte Allen, linebacker D.J. Hunter, safety Taj Letman and tight end Joe Woodrum in management, and offensive guard Sebastian Johansson in sports management/marketing.
The roster gained four more graduates in May 2015 – cornerback Keith Baxter (health science), defensive end Joe Massaquoi (criminal justice), offensive tackle Clint Van Horn (political science) and punter Tyler Williams (marketing). Four summer graduates were added in August 2015 – defensive end Armonze Daniel (management), defensive tackle Steve Dillon (Regents bachelor of arts), kick returner Deandre Reaves (marketing) and linebacker Evan McKelvey (marketing and management).
This December, Hunter added a second degree (marketing), while other graduates were long snapper Matt Cincotta (magna cum laude, biology in 3 1/2 years; pre-med), defensive linemen Jarquez Samuel and Ricardo Williams (Regents bachelor of arts), offensive lineman Tom Collins (exercise science), running back Devon Johnson (sports management) and cornerback Corey Tindal and wide receiver Jack Gammon (management).
Cincotta was named to the 2015 Conference USA All-Academic Team.
Tindal, Massaquoi and Gammon are juniors. Seventeen of the 18 seniors on the Herd’s bowl roster have completed undergraduate course work for degrees.
In the St. Petersburg Bowl, the Herd hopes to regain its stature as No. 1 in winning percentage in postseason history among schools that have appeared in at least five bowl games.
Marshall is 9-3 (.750) in its 12 appearances, tied with Utah at 15-5 (.750). The Utes moved into that tie with a Las Vegas Bowl triumph over longtime rival BYU on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Herd is among a list of five teams seeking a fifth consecutive bowl win in this postseason. The nation’s longest active streak for bowl wins is four, shared by the Herd, Oregon, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Michigan State, South Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette. However, the Gamecocks and Ragin’ Cajuns are not bowl eligible in 2015.
Florida State owns the record for bowl wins in consecutive seasons (11, 1985-95 seasons).
And with victories in the Military and Boca Raton bowls in 2013 and ’14, respectively, Marshall is trying to become only the second team in Conference USA history to win bowls in three consecutive seasons. Southern Miss did it from 2004-06, with victories in the New Orleans Bowl (twice) and GMAC Bowl.