MARSHALL -- There's a sleeping giant hiding in the swaths of forest some 20 minutes east of the Louisiana border.

We're not talking about the Mavericks' football program. It belongs in the first breath of Texas high school powers with tremendous runs in almost every decade since the game itself first took off.

We're talking about rising junior Justin Hart, the freshman quarterback that got thrown into the fire against Longview in the third week of the 2012 season.

A sophisticated quarterback has been forged through tough times in Marshall.

"Justin has 21 games experience against 5A and other really good football schools," second-year head coach Clint Harper said. "When you're starting out as a freshman against the Longview Lobos, in Longview, you grow up pretty quickly. Justin has done a great job and understands the entire offense."

Marshall quarterback Justin Hart shined in Wednesday's practice. That doesn't come as a surprise to his coaching staff though. The rising juniot has started games since he was a freshman. (© Christopher R. Vinn  ETSN.fm)

The quarterback is just at the midway point of his high school career and has a wealth of experience.

Hart gave the first indication he could grow into a big-time player when he was a 12-year-old. He was invited to compete at the Dreammaker Tour championship competition in Santa Barbara, Calif., with a group of 12-year-old to 14-year-old quarterbacks after impressive performances in qualifying rounds in Dallas and Houston.

Getting the start against Longview had to be another confidence builder.

But it's been a mixed bag since. Highlights, personal bests, disappointments and an uphill battle to get the Mavericks back on the map.

His first two varsity seasons wrapped up with losing records.

After the coaching change, a young 2013 squad squeaked into the playoffs with a 3-7 regular season record -- an improvement on the 1-9 record in 2012 -- and then got thrashed by Wylie in the first round. Hart broke an ankle in the first quarter of the playoff game.

"It started off really fast," Hart said as he reflected on the earlier part of his career. "It started at East Texas Baptist University where you had to go to the 7-on-7s and throw some. The defensive backs were faster than you were used to. But at the end of the year, my freshman year, it slowed down. It was too late for it to slow down for me though. My sophomore year, it slowed down a lot. Still had some mistakes with the new playbook. This year, it will be full throttle. It feels good. There's nothing pretty much new for me."

Hart looked great in Wednesday's spring practice in front of a coach from North Texas and an assistant from Lamar.

He has an outstanding deep ball, gives the ball a good spiral and throws with nice velocity and elite touch. Running the offense, all the while, is second nature.

The Mavericks appear to be in good position across the ball. Its team seems smaller than a standard new Class 5A team, but its spring starters look like real football players.

Most high school skill players have body types that don't scream out a particular position. That's not the case in Marshall.

The team has clear linebackers, clear receivers and obvious running backs headlined by rising junior Deondre Osborne.

Osborne observed the practice with a minor ankle injury which allowed other tailbacks to shine.

Jaquavian Dabbs flashed a lot of potential at wideout as a rising junior and the Mavericks' offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-5, 280-pound senior left tackle Chett Munden.

"Jaquavian Dabbs and D. Osborne, we're in the same grade and we've been playing ball together since we were like five years old," Hart said. "We know each other really well and we're really close with the offensive line. They're beasts."

With underclassmen talent and a legitimate Division I prospect on the offensive line, the time seems right for Marshall to get back on track.

And for Hart to get his name out there.

"We're hoping to get 3,000 yards passing," the quarterback said. "We want 1,000 yards rushing at quarterback and then 2,000 yards rushing for our running backs."

 

Catching Up With Coach Harper

 

Marshall is utilizing an up-tempo offense with focus on its zone read game.

This gives Hart multiple capabilities. He can hand the ball off to a running back, keep the ball himself if he sees an open lane or he can even throw the ball down field.

"We run a practice where there's no downtime," Harper said. "We're going for an hour and a half and there are no extended breaks. We're trying to get in as many football plays as we can. I think it really pushes our defense and forces kids to get into shape."

Senior left tackle Chett Munden has the interest of multiple colleges with a 6-5, 280-pound frame entering summer workouts. (© Christopher R. Vinn  ETSN.fm)

Up-tempo offenses have taken over the high school and college games.

Marshall expects at least half of its opposing offenses to run a hurry up style to change the pace of the game. In a worst-case scenario, changes in tempo will either tire out the Mavericks' defense or confuse the players into blown assignments.

Practicing against an offense giving similar looks minimizes the chance of Marshall's defenders wearing out in a real game.

"I know two out of the first three non-distict games, Royse City and Parkway (Louisiana), they're both up-tempo and no huddle offenses," Harper said. "We've got to get ready for it. We struggled a little bit last year early on, defensively, trying to keep up with other teams and the new 40-second play clock going into effect will speed up the game even more."

Back on the offensive side, Harper has a system that is proven.

Former Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson found success at Leander High School in Central Texas, a system Harper carried over as the offensive coordinator and then head coach of Leander through 2012. Former Texas safety Blake Gideon also dabbled with quarterback at Leander while Harper was the offensive coordinator.

"We're going to run the inside zone," Marshall's head coach said. "We've been running it at Leander since the early 2000s. We had a number of great quarterbacks come through Leander and here at Marshall we have talented quarterbacks.

"We're going to base out of the zone read and do a lot of the bubble screens and hand sweeps you see a lot of teams doing. Trying not only to run inside but also have a outside, perimeter game. Then we'll do a lot of play action and things off of those."

Munden gives Harper a lot to work with at offensive line, and the other players aren't exactly slouches.

"Like I tell all the recruiters that come through, we've already had 15 to 20 come through this spring, you can't coach 6-7, 315 pounds. You can do a lot of coaching in college, but you can't get him to grow to 6-7 and reach 315 pounds.

"Obviously, we're going to rely on our offensive line. We think that's a strength of our football team. We have all five guys returning. We think with Justin and with our offensive line we have a chance."

Osborne is a dangerous player as well.

"Deondre had about a dozen touchdowns last season," Harper said. "Having him come back with his leadership and his ability, he's been playing since he was a freshman, we think we have a chance to be pretty good offensively."

Defense appears to be on the up-and-up as well.

"We've got an athletic secondary and a really experienced defensive line," the head coach said. "We've got the sophomore player of the year in Anthony Washington who's not even here. He's out with shoulder surgery that we had back in January. If we were playing a game, he'd be playing today, but we're trying to be preventative in the spring.

"We've got Trey Valentine, a 6-4 and 230-pound defensive lineman, and Anthony's brother who's coming back to the program. He was out with an injury the entire year and getting him back makes it look like defensive line is going to be the strength of our defense."

Marshall will begin the season against Royse City in Week 1. (© Christopher R. Vinn  ETSN.fm)