Assistant Marks keys tourney-bound Smyrna’s explosive offense

Smyrna Football photo by .

Smyrna senior DL Jeffery Campbell (79) and his teammates celebrate a touchdown against Cape Henlopen two weeks ago. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

SMYRNA — Mike Marks arrived at Smyrna High’s football practice on Monday with something he wanted to show the Eagles.

During the team’s meeting ahead of tonight’s first-round playoff matchup, Marks whipped out his NCAA Division I-AA national championship ring he earned as a member of the University of Delaware’s coaching staff in 2003.

Marks wanted the Eagles to realize the type of opportunity they have in front of them. Third-seeded Smyrna (9-1) hosts sixth-seeded Mount Pleasant (9-1) tonight in the first round of the DIAA Division I state tournament at 7:30 p.m.

“For the rest of your life you can tell people you were a champion,” Marks told the Eagles. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that championship.”

Marks is a central figure in Smyrna’s rise from the Henlopen Conference Northern Division’s last-place team and a 2-8 record in 2013 to the North’s championship and a playoff appearance this season.

The 34-year-old joined the staff as offensive coordinator last year when Mike Judy was named head coach. Marks installed an up-tempo offensive system that has the Eagles averaging 55 points a game this year.

“He’s one of the guys turning this program around,” said junior quarterback Nolan Henderson. “It’s amazing being a part of it. From the beginning he brought a different mentality and an energy that has never been here before.”

Judy and Marks had crossed each other’s paths several times in the last 12 years.

They both teach in the Smyrna School District. Plus while Marks has bounced around the state with various coaching jobs, he was on the Smyrna staff with Judy in 2007.

Marks was one of the first people Judy called when he got the head coaching job.

“I’ve always tried to keep my eyes on him and see what he was doing,” Judy said. “When things started to shake out here, he was one of the first guys that I contacted.”

Judy, who describes himself as “very contrarian,” wanted Marks because he knew all about his innovation. Before Judy, Smyrna was a run-oriented team focused on ground-and-pound, like most of the Henlopen North teams. Judy brought in Marks to shake things up.

Marks learned the nuts and bolts of the spread offense while at Delaware as a two-year offensive graduate assistant under head coach K.C. Keeler and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. His duties included working with the quarterbacks and wide receivers, film breakdown and recruiting, which Marks credits with giving him an understanding on how to teach the game of football.

After his stint at Delaware, Marks accepted a physical education teaching job in the Smyrna district and bounced around the state at various coaching spots as an assistant.

When he got the offer to be offensive coordinator from Judy, it didn’t take him long to accept.

“He said, ‘I want to build something really special,’” Marks said. “I jumped at that opportunity because I thought he’s the guy that could get this thing around and that’s what he’s done. It’s a testament to Coach Judy that he’s been able to make this thing go in such a short period of time.”

It isn’t hard to spot Marks during a Smyrna game.

He’s the guy with the headset, jumping up and down while shouting out plays as the Eagles move down the field at warp speed. He’s the guy who is first off the sideline for a celebratory chest bump or a big pat on the helmet after a Smyrna touchdown.

“He loves the game,” Henderson said. “He loves us. He loves winning. He’s intense, always excited and fun to play for.”

And Marks loves where he is in his life right now.

Born in Elmira, N.Y., he played wide receiver for Ithaca College, moving to Delaware after graduation. He became part of the Smyrna-Clayton community and, like so many other fans, watched the the Eagles go through rough patches of sub-.500 football.

“You can tell they’ve been hungry for a team that they can be proud of,” Marks said. “Hopefully we’re making a lot of people proud.

“This was the place I always wanted to be,” he added.

Marks comes from a football family. His father, Tony Marks, was a long-time coach in New York. Some of his earliest memories are being dragged to coaches’ meeting with his dad and watching film sessions.

He grew up talking football with his father and he’s still doing that to this day. Tony Marks is on the gameday staff for Smyrna and works on top of the press box, where he communicates with Marks through the headset to help with play calling.

“I think that makes it all the more special,” Marks said. “I’ve got my father helping me, I’m coaching with some of my best friends in the entire world and I’ve got a community that supports us like nothing else. It’s a pleasure to show up at work every day.”

The new coaching staff has helped lead this turnaround but Marks is quick to point out what his players have been able to do.

“I don’t remember Smyrna football ever having this kind of team and these kinds of athletes,” Marks said.

The combination of the spread offense and those athletes has led to some gaudy statistics.

Smyrna has recorded 5,032 yards of total offense. Henderson has 2,795 passing yards with 29 touchdowns and sophomore Will Knight has 1,423 rushing yards with 30 total touchdowns.

“We’ve had a lot of success and we owe a lot of that to the phenomenal kids that we have,” Marks said. “Not only are they extremely talented but they work their butts off and you can go a long way with a lot of talented kids who work their tails off. I’m extremely impressed with how they show up every day and just grind to try to get better.

“I wish there was some sort of secret sauce,” Marks added. “But you’ve got to have good, high-quality kids who show up to work every day.”

“You will be hard-pressed to find a coach that works their kids harder and who is more detailed-oriented than Mike,” Judy said. “When the kids buy into that, they do well in the games. He’s been able to spread his wings a bit and I don’t want to hinder that growth at all.”

With Marks at the helm, count on Smyrna to keep using the spread.

“The spread philosophy is something that I’ve always believed in,” Marks said. “It’s something I’ll continue to believe in and continue to tweak throughout the years to hopefully have success.”

Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at tmastro@newszap.com

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