HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — West Virginians have proved to be valuable to the Marshall football team in the past. Names such as Randy Moss and Chris Massey stick out as in-state players who helped Marshall succeed in the 1990s.
Dating back to the World War II-era, Frank “Gunner” Gatski played for Marshall from 1940 to 1942 before going on to an NFL Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Gatski is heralded at Marshall, being that he’s the only Herd football player to have his jersey retired. His No. 72 adorns the front of the press box at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Herd’s 2013 Military Bowl champion team had nine West Virginians on the roster, as well as 34 Floridians. Even though guys like Rakeem Cato and Gator Hoskins are not from West Virginia, that doesn’t mean West Virginians didn’t play a vital role in the successes of the Herd in 2013.
With less than a month until National Signing Day, Marshall coach Doc Holliday and the rest of the Herd coaching staff have hit the recruiting trail to find the next West Virginia high school player to make the transition to Division I college football.
“We’re going to hit every school in the state of West Virginia,” Holliday said.
“Look around our football team right now, at that bowl game. Blake Brooks played extremely well in that game,” Holliday said. “He went in there and played a lot of guard and played well and is going to play a lot of guard for us next year from South Charleston.”
Brooks and Beckley native Clint Van Horn stuck out to Holliday as two players who came into Marshall as non-scholarship players.
“Those are two guys, to be honest with you, weren’t recruited in high school very much at all and ended up being walk-ons, but they are good football players,” Holliday said.
“Van Horn, at the end of this year, may have been one of the best offensive linemen in Conference USA. Derek Mitchell contributed greatly for us, was our special teams player of the year.”
Though West Virginia isn’t known for being a recruiting hotbed, Holliday has gotten plenty of good play out of under-the-radar in-state players. He said West Virginians have plenty of passion for football, but haven’t evolved into budding prospects.
“I think a lot of players in West Virginia have big ol’ hearts but they’re underdeveloped,” Holliday said. “Look at every one of those kids I mentioned, they didn’t come in as very good players. They came in here as guys who love football and have big ol’ hearts who are willing to work extremely hard to get where they are, and they’ve turned out to be really good.”
Holliday added that he wants to give the opportunity to play to every player in the state who has an interest in Marshall football.
One local high school coach who wants to see his graduating players go on to play in college, but has also been in the same situation as being overlooked by many of the big schools in Cabell Midland High School head coach Luke Salmons. Salmons played at Marshall on the offensive line from 1999 to 2003 after playing in high school at Ravenswood, W.Va.
Salmons said being able to stay in state to play college football was a dream come true.
“Whenever you play for a local university then it means a lot to you and means a lot to your family,” Salmons said. “It meant a little bit extra for me to play at Marshall. Everybody knows who Marshall is and they have great tradition.”
As a coach, Salmons is tasked with helping as many of his players who are seniors move on to the college gridiron if they want to play at that level. He said there are many good players from West Virginia that sometimes get overshadowed by players from other states.
“There are a lot of good kids in a lot of states, and West Virginia isn’t the Mecca of football, but we have good kids too,” Salmons said. “Marshall means a lot to them. I was one of those guys, Doc Holliday was one of those guys, [Marshall Offensive Coordinator] Coach Legg was one of those guys, when he went to West Virginia and played.”
While not many West Virginians get the opportunity to play Division I football as do players from other states, Salmons said the caliber of West Virginia high school football is improving.
“There is good football here,” Salmons said. “Over the past three years since I got here [Cabell Midland], I think football in West Virginia has gotten better. It still needs to get better. We’re not able to work with them as much, but I think it will get better as coaches continue to work with the kids who want to be as good as anybody else.”
Salmons knows fully what Brooks and Van Horn went through, not only on the practice field, but also in terms of being on scholarship.
“I walked on, then after my first year I earned a scholarship,” Salmons said. “When I started out, I was 230 lbs. I know that Clint Van Horn wasn’t a real big kid, but that walk-on year gave me time to develop and the same for him.”
Defensive back Matthew Santer of Parkersburg will join the Herd as part of the 2014 recruiting class and has already began classes for the spring semester, after spending a season at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Holliday’s pledge to visit every high school in West Virginia that he wants the current West Virginians already with the Herd to have more Mountain State natives alongside them on the field.
No one will know exactly how many West Virginians will choose Marshall until Feb. 5, but between now and then, Holliday and his staff will be working to add to the already growing number of locals on the Herd roster.
— Braxton Crisp