Walk-ons grow into leaders for Herd
HUNTINGTON — In the last two football seasons it has almost become expected to see Chase Hancock and Malik Gant atop Marshall University’s defensive statistics.
Hancock, a senior linebacker, and Gant, a junior safety, both have 73 tackles this season to tie for the team lead.
That’s not the only similarity they share, however.
Both players are former walk-ons who earned scholarships and have become leaders and major figures for the Marshall defense.
Gant credits Hancock for helping him on the path to success from the time he joined the Thundering Herd, going as far to say that without Hancock he might not have stayed in Huntington.
“Chase was really the only walk-on that was there for me when I first got in,” Gant said. “He talked to me and let me know how things work because I wasn’t
really sure if I wanted to stay for part of this or keep playing football because the walk-on process is really hard. He just kept encouraging me along the way.”
Gant said because of Hancock’s impact, the Senior Day game Saturday has a bigger meaning. UTSA (3-7, 2-4 Conference USA) and Marshall (6-3, 4-2) play a 2:30 p.m. Saturday game in Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
“He really was a big part of keeping me going and keeping me focused and keeping me motivated throughout this whole way, so it’s a big moment to see Chase’s last time playing on Marshall’s field,” Gant said.
There might not be any other players who define brotherhood on the Marshall defense quite like Gant and Hancock, even though they come from different places.
Hancock is a redshirt senior from Beckley — a local kid from a state that, at the time, did not have many NCAA Division I opportunities going around to players. Gant is a redshirt junior from Washington, D.C. — an area that has plenty of Division I talent with many players falling through the cracks.
Coming out of high school, options were limited at the Division I level, but neither of them was deterred from their dream, which was major college football.
When Gant arrived on campus, Hancock saw something in him that seemed familiar. For Hancock, who was still a walk-on when Gant arrived, it was almost like looking in the mirror.
It didn’t take long before everyone was seeing something in Gant, much like what they had in Hancock previously.
“He was one of those guys that you would watch him in practice,” Hancock said. “When he made a play, everybody kind of looked like, ‘Oooohh.’ People knew who he was. That was Malik. I’m really proud of the man he has become and the leader he’s stepped up to be. He’s only a junior and he’s taken a huge leadership role on the team. I think a lot of guys respect him and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Marshall ranks No. 26 nationally in total defense and the run defense is tops in C-USA, allowing just 2.9 yards per carry.
That’s an impressive statistic and when you consider that three primary defensive starters for the Herd are former walk-ons — Hancock, Gant and safety Nazeeh Johnson — it becomes even more impressive. All three are in the top five on the team in tackles.
“I think that’s the foundation of our team,” Gant said. “You have a lot of people that come from the bottom and we all just mound together and build Marshall’s defense.”
For the walk-ons one thing stands out among all others, Hancock said.
It has nothing to do with the fans or wins or statistics. It is much simpler and pure than that. It’s when that the 135 to 140 players in the program know your name because of your impact. For a walk-on, that is not easily attainable.
“When you become a guy” Hancock said, smiling. “That’s what (former Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck) Heater used to call it. You’ve got to be a guy — somebody who is a leader, someone who makes plays and somebody we can depend on. That’s what it’s all about — establishing yourself and knowing that no one gave you anything. You had to earn it. It just makes it that much better”
As Hancock runs across the field Saturday to meet head coach Doc Holliday on Senior Day the Beckley native will have earned his ovation from the crowd, which is likely going to be among the loudest for the 18 outgoing players.
After five years of service and dedication to the program, Hancock’s time playing at Joan C. Edwards Stadium will close. At that time, the torch of showing walk-ons how to become leaders is passed to Gant.
For Gant, the best senior gift he can give Hancock is continuing the walk-on legacy. It’s something Gant said he’s adamant about and has already started with Johnson, who also went down the similar path from walk-on to starter.
“When Nazeeh came in, I passed it on down to Nazeeh and explained the same things Chase explained to me the year before and he understood it right away,” Gant said.
Hancock said he has a good feeling knowing that as he departs at season’s end the leadership on defense will fall to Gant.
“I think he (shows) that with the way he practices and plays and the way he talks,” Hancock said. “I’m not worried. I think the future of Marshall is in good hands.”
UTSA (3-7,2-4) at MARSHALL (6-3,4-2)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Huntington
TV: Stadium on Facebook
Radio: WDGG 93.7-FM, ESPN 94.1-FM and 930-AM, WMUL 88.1-FM