Herd TE Armani Levias is more comfortable this spring

HUNTINGTON - Last year, Marshall University tight end Armani Levias arrived in Huntington as a junior college football prospect from Laney Community College in his hometown of Pittsburg, Calif.

Levias knew he was going to be in new territory - literally and figuratively - when he joined the Thundering Herd football program as a mid-year enrollee in Jan. 2017. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound tight end was more than 2,500 miles from home and, at the time, he didn't exactly know what it took to be a football player at the NCAA Division I level.

As is the case with many junior college players, the increase in speed of the game consumed Levias at times last spring as he made the adjustment.

"Last year, I was the new kid on the block and I couldn't get the plays down," Levias said. "My head was hurting, my eyes were big. I just had to learn how to practice."

For Levias, it was about listening and taking in everything around him, which included hearing the coaching of former position coach Bill Legg and especially learning on the field from senior leader Ryan Yurachek.

Levias credited Yurachek for getting him through when times became tough last season.

"If I didn't know my assignment on my job, I asked him and he pointed out what I needed to do," Levias said. "When you have a good example, it's easy to just do what he does. He might not have been as vocal as some, but he was a great leader for us. He made sure we stayed on our game if we messed up. I appreciate him for that."

Now, the charge of Levias and the other Marshall tight ends is to step in to fill the role of Yurachek, who contributed 490 yards while leading the team with 10 touchdown receptions.

Yurachek was the latest in a long lineage of successful tight ends at Marshall, meaning the onus is on Levias, Cody Mitchell, Xavier Gaines and Devin Miller to continue the trend beginning with this spring's practice sessions.

"From the Cody Slates and Lee Smiths, all the way through the Gator Hoskins to Emanuel Byrds to Ryan Yuracheks and the Eric Frohnapfels, there is a great history and tradition here," Marshall tight ends coach Todd Goebbel said. "You've got four great, young men that are willing to step up to the challenge and meet the standard and expectation of the position. From what I've seen in four practices, I think we've got a chance."

With Yurachek a three-year starter, there weren't many other players who got in two-deep repetitions last season.

And we're not just talking games, either.

"Not one guy in my (position) room, other than Cody Mitchell, has had a live practice rep, a meaningful rep - before this week," Goebbel said.

Levias said while there aren't many repetitions between them, there is a confidence about each guy, thanks to the work put in during offseason conditioning with head strength coach Luke Day and his staff.

"It means a lot because if I'm not 100 percent in shape, that means I can't give it my all," Levias said. "All the strength coaches, they've done a great job with me. There's a big improvement from since I came here and I'm just enjoying the process of getting better as a player."

The proof has been in Levias' execution and tempo on the field.

Last season at this time, Levias was slowed as he was trying to process what he was supposed to do before reacting on a particular play.

Now, he's moving at a better pace, which is vital for the offense under new coordinator Tim Cramsey.

"When we come out here, I'm not trying to focus on being perfect because I know when I start thinking a lot I don't go 100 percent," Levias said. "Now, I'm trying to think fast and go 100 miles per hour. It's my second go-round so I'm more comfortable and more relaxed. I don't have to think as much. I'm ready to play."

Levias and the Herd take part in their fifth practice of spring Thursday afternoon before getting set for Saturday's practice, which will feature live-ball situations.

Marshall football should get help in mid-year signing period

After its most difficult season in nearly a decade, it became clear Marshall needed immediate, athletic help at many positions.

As the mid-year junior-college signing period begins Wednesday, such help may be on the way. The Thundering Herd is expected sign as many as four juco standouts to binding letters of intent.

Two of those played in the California juco circuit, one is a Florida native who played in Iowa and the other is a Georgia native who played in Kansas.

To hear their juco coaches talk — they’re biased, of course — they just might be playmakers the MU programs need.

Armani Levias stands out in that group because of stature, at the least. He is a big tight end from Laney College in Oakland, California, who was once a pocket-passing prospect in high school.

That was when he was 215 pounds.

“He’s a difference-maker because he’s 6-5, 250 pounds and can move,” said Laney coach John Beam. “He’s got really good hands — most of his catches are for touchdowns because when we get in the red zone, he creates a lot of mismatches. And he’s learning to become a physical blocker.”

Levias hails from of Pittsburg, California, not far east from Oakland. He would follow the footsteps of Laney alums Chuck Walker and Troy Evans, both Herd wide receivers.

In the Fresno area, Artis Johnson wasn’t cheated out of playing time at Reedley College. He played strong safety, but did so much more.

His coach says he won’t sign Wednesday, but expects the Texas native to do so later in the period, which lasts through Jan. 17. Johnson redshirted after an injury his first season, so he would have two years to play two at Marshall.

“He was our strong safety, outside linebacker and also our ‘wildcat’ quarterback,” said coach Eric Marty. “He returned kicks, he did it all.

“He’s 6-1, 210 or 215 and looks the part. He’s explosive and changes directions well. He’s going to bring a lot of versatility as far as the ability to play field safety, or roll down into that outside linebacker position. He’s one of the best athletes on our team.”

The Herd could be picking up a quick slot receiver in Marcel Williams. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound native of Bunnell, Florida, played at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa City, Iowa.

His 2016 season was cut short by an injury to his thumb, for which he had surgery. His coach, Jesse Montalto, expects Williams to be full-go next month.

“He’s a very good football player, smart player. He actually played both ways for us a freshman,” Montalto said. “But he’s explosive. He’s as fast a kid as you’ll find at this level. He ran good times this summer; I think he ran as low as a 4.41 [40-yard dash].”

The fourth reported juco commitment is cornerback Kereon Merrell, a native of Vienna, Georgia, who played at Dodge City Community College in Kansas. It is not clear when he will sign.

Those who sign this week are expected to begin classes at Marshall in January and participate in spring practice.