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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 79: Marshall

Say hello to John "Doc" Holliday, the new coach at Marshall. He'll be your Huckleberry.

It took Mark Snyder five years to bring once-proud Marshall back to bowl play. Five long, difficult years. For his efforts, Snyder was fired. Thanks, but don’t forget to clear out your desk. Note to coaches across the country: when your university hires a new athletic director – as Marshall did with Mike Hamrick, himself a former Marshall football player – your days might be numbered. His replacement, the former West Virginia assistant Doc Holliday, is regarded in many circles as one of the nation’s top recruiters yet has no head coach or coordinator experience.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Huntington, W.Va.

Nickname
Thundering Herd

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 100

2009 record
(7-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 68

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Ohio St.
  • Sept. 10
    West Virginia
  • Sept. 18
    at Bowling Green
  • Sept. 25
    Ohio
  • Oct. 2
    at Southern Miss
  • Oct. 13
    U.C.F.
  • Oct. 23
    at E.C.U.
  • Oct. 30
    UTEP
  • Nov. 6
    at U.A.B.
  • Nov. 13
    Memphis
  • Nov. 20
    at S.M.U.
  • Nov. 27
    Tulane

Last year’s prediction

Marshall has a shot at going 2-2 out of conference, which would be huge for this team. If it does — Bowling Green is the most important nonconference game — Marshall has a shot at bowl play. Yes, it has a shot, but I’m not willing to go out on a limb and predict the Herd to reach bowl eligibility. I don’t think Marshall will be as good as seven wins, nor as bad as four, so I’m going somewhere in the middle: 5-7, 3-5 in conference play.

2009 recap

In a nutshell It’s unfortunate that Snyder’s dismissal, which came one day after a loss to UTEP to end the regular season, overshadowed what the program had accomplished over the previous three months. Beyond the six wins – seven with a bowl win – Marshall had made a nice improvement on defense, allowing three points less per game than in 2008 and 10 points less than in 2007. Though the offense lacked punch, it did enough to keep the Thundering Herd in most games, though not enough to avoid three losses by a touchdown or less. All in all, one might have said that Marshall’s return to bowl play in 2009 was enough to guarantee Snyder’s return in 2010, if not ensure a slight contract extension.

High point A Nov. 21 win over S.M.U. propelled Marshall into bowl play. The victory came on the heels of a pair of difficult losses to Central Florida and Southern Mississippi, games that saw Marshall tied or ahead in the fourth quarter only to let the game slip away.

Low point The Thundering Herd played most of their conference opposition tough; in addition to the U.C.F. and Southern Miss defeats, Marshall lost to East Carolina by a narrow four-point margin. Not so against UTEP, who ran roughshod over the Herd in a season-ending 52-21 win. Snyder was fired a day later.

Tidbit If we go by the numbers, Marshall enjoys the most dominating home field advantage in the country. The Thundering Herd are 118-19 in Huntington, an F.B.S.-best winning percentage of .866, since christening Joan C. Edwards Stadium in 1991. Twelve of those 19 home losses have come since 2005.

Tidbit (tech talk edition) When it comes to high-tech machinery, the “thundering herd problem” is a computer malfunction that occurs when a computer becomes backed-up, for lack of a better phrase, in the process of attempting to complete an individual task. Once the task is finished, all the programs waiting to proceed with their functions attempt to do so at once instead of politely awaiting their turn, as is typically the case. To equate that with something football-related, it’s like your entire defense jumping offsides at once.

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 OG Daniel Baldridge (Jacksonville), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (New York Giants), S Chris Crocker (Cincinnati), S Ashton Hall (Baltimore), QB Byron Leftwich (Pittsburgh), C Doug Legursky (Pittsburgh), LS Chris Massey (St. Louis), DE Albert McClellan (Baltimore), WR Randy Moss (New England), QB Chad Pennington (Miami), TE Cody Slate (Kansas City), FS C.J. Spillman (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Action movies with Tommy Lee Jones
1. The Fugitive (1993).
2. Under Siege (1992).
3. Blown Away (1994).
4. U.S. Marshals (1998).
5. Fire Birds (1990).

Coaching

John “Doc” Holliday (West Virginia ’79), entering his first season with the program. Holliday was hired in December to replace Mark Snyder, who resigned – was fired – after going 22-37 in five seasons as the Thundering Herd coach. The vast majority of Holliday’s experience has come at his alma mater, where he accepted a graduate assistant position immediately upon exhausting his eligibility in 1979. He coached the Mountaineers from 1979-99, mostly as the receivers coach (1983-89, 1993-99) but also as an inside linebackers coach (1990-92). From 1995-99, Holliday was West Virginia’s assistant head coach. After spending eight seasons at N.C. State (2000-4) and Florida (2005-7), maintaining that associate head coach title at both stops, Holliday returned to Morgantown as Bill Stewart’s top assistant following Rich Rodriguez’s departure for Michigan following the 2007 season. As his resume shows, Holliday has never held a head coaching position on any level, nor even a coordinator position. So how did he get this far? His ability to recruit, of course. Like a smaller (hopefully more successful) Ed Orgeron, Holliday has built an outstanding reputation as one of the country’s most successful recruiters. This reputation has grown exponentially over the last half decade, a period that has seen Holliday first recruit much of the nucleus of Florida’s latest national championship-winning team in addition to serving as the point man for West Virginia’s recruiting under Bill Stewart. Is this enough to justify landing a head coach position on the F.B.S. level? No one doubts his experience and ability to reel in recruits who might not have otherwise considered the Thundering Herd, but I’d feel far better about his ability to win consistently if he had surrounded himself with a more talented game day staff. However, there is no doubting his potential to be a very good coach at Marshall, as well as no doubting his affinity for the state and commitment to the job.

Tidbit (coaching edition) What about Holliday’s new staff? Good, bad, somewhere in between? In terms of the good, I like Mike Cassity, the secondary coach who has coordinated defenses at Louisville and Illinois. I also like the fact that Holliday brought back three coaches who had either played or previously coached at Marshall: Tony Petersen, Phil Ratliff and Bill Legg. Bringing in Legg and Petersen, who will serve as co-offensive coordinators, was a good hire. I’m not particularly crazy about the decision to bring in Chris Rippon as his defensive coordinator, though Cassity can lend a hand in game-planning. It’s not a terrible first staff, not a great one. Probably should allow these guys to show what they can do as a group before making a decision.

Players to watch

The Marshall offensive line remains a question mark, one year after falling well short of expectations. The story, in fact, is somewhat similar to that of a year ago: several key contributors return, including four players with starting experience. However, injuries and an overall lack of effectiveness prevented this group from indicating any sense of improvement during the spring. Senior center Chad Schofield, an honorable mention all-conference pick last fall, was limited to non-contact duties; returning starter Ryan Tillman was unable to practice entirely. So what do we know? Senior Brandon Campbell will return at left tackle, for starters. C.J. Wood, who has started in the past, will start at right tackle. He was singled out by the Marshall coaching staff for his consistent performance throughout the spring. Seniors Landis Provancha and Erik Vint, another pair of important contributors, saw plenty of snaps with the first team. What don’t we know? Which five will open the season in the starting lineup. My guess? From left to right: Campbell, Tillman, Schofield, Provancha and Wood.

Unfortunately — for both the university and the player — running back Darius Marshall opted to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the N.F.L. draft. He’ll be missed: Marshall posted a team-best 1,131 yards rushing — his second consecutive season cracking the 1,000-yard mark — despite missing all or parts of four games; he posted at least 98 yards in five successive games from Sept. 12 through Oct. 10, including a career-best 203 yards against Memphis. It helps that, due to his injury, sophomore Martin Ward was able to land valuable game experience. He played very well when given the opportunity, rushing for 136 yards in his debut start and 75 yards and 2 scores in Marshall’s Little Caesars Bowl victory over Ohio. Junior Terrell Edwards and sophomore Andre Booker will take on secondary roles.

Losing tight end Cody Slate hurts, but the Marshall receiver corps will land a sizable boost from the return of two key performers recovering from injuries that cost each most, if not all, of the 2009 season. This was especially the case with senior Courtney Edmonson, who was expected to be the team’s top wide receiver target before being lost for the year in the season opener. If they’re healthy, Edmonson and junior Troy Evans will be important members of the receiver rotation. Sophomore Antavious Wilson stepped into the void nicely, posting team-bests in receptions (60) and yards (724) to go along with three touchdowns. Senior Chuck Walker (33 grabs for 350 yards) and sophomore Aaron Dobson (15 for 362, a team-leading 24.1 yards per catch) help round a pretty deep group.

Say hello to Mario Harvey, who might just be the best defender in all of Conference USA. He was terrific in 2009, roaming from sideline to sideline and getting into the backfield with ease, helping an otherwise average defense put forth a strong effort against the run. On the year, Harvey posted 117 tackles (8.5 for loss) and 7 sacks; he led the team in tackles and sacks. Despite his size — at 6’0, 250 pounds, he’s not a prototypical outside linebacker — Harvey is a great fit on the weak side. Junior Kellen Harris (71 tackles, 6 for loss) returns in the middle. While the Thundering Herd lost Brandon Burns on the strong side, this new staff has high hopes for sophomore Devin Arrington, who earned some key snaps as a first-year player. Again, keep an eye on Harvey: he’s a leading contender for conference defensive player of the year honors.

A deep, talented defensive front helps Marshall land one of the top front sevens in Conference USA. Leading the way are ends Vince Curry and Michael Janac, each of whom earned honorable mention all-conference accolades in 2009. Janac, whose size allows him to double on the interior in passing situations, had 44 tackles (3 for loss) a year ago. Curry added 59 stops (8.5 for loss) and 3.5 sacks; he’ll be counted on to replace some of Albert McClellan’s lost production. Three massive tackles anchor the middle of the line: Johnny Jones has 15 career starts to lead all returning interior linemen, while Delvin Johnson and Brandon Bullock will figure heavily into the rotation.

Depth in the secondary will be tested by the potential loss of cornerback DeQuan Bembry, who is currently suspended from the team due to off-field misdeeds. That’s strike two for Bembry; his eligibility is in extreme doubt. If he does return, however, cornerback might be one of the strongest position on the team: he would join Ahmed Shakoor, who made 11 starts last fall. Senior D.J. Wingate, who has started in the past, stepped in for Bembry during the spring. The Thundering Herd will have a new look at safety, where they must supplant starters John Saunders and Ashton Hall. However, due to an early-season injury to Saunders, Marshall junior Omar Brown earned significant experience a season ago. He made 73 tackles, third on the team, while his two interceptions trailed only Bembry for the team lead. The strong safety spot remains open to competition, with sophomore Donald Brown, senior Pete Culicerto and freshman Brian Robinson battling for the starting role.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Marshall returns a senior starter in Brian Anderson, whose first season in the starting lineup went, well, not terribly: 2,646 yards passing and 14 scores, though he did toss 13 interceptions. That latter total must come down. Of course, the more important number is seven, the number of wins the Anderson-led Herd posted a season ago. One would think there would be no quarterback competition: senior starter, developing as a passer, proven leader. That’s not the case. He faced steady competition from three fellow quarterbacks in the spring. The first is redshirt freshman A.J. Graham, Florida’s Mr. Football as a senior in high school, who brought an added dimension to the offense during the spring. The Marshall coaching staff is extremely high on Graham; he’s the future at the position. The next is junior Mark Cann, who brings starting experience of his own to the table — 11 games in 2008. Like Anderson, he tossed 14 touchdowns against 13 picks, albeit with a lower completion percentage and overall command of the offense. Press Taylor is another option: he comes from good bloodlines, as his older brother, Zac, was a starting quarterback at Nebraska. There’s four challengers for the spot, though Anderson — given Graham’s inexperience  — is the best option. More help is on the way: former Clemson transfer Willy Korn, who arrived on campus earlier this month, will be immediately eligible to play for the Thundering Herd due to an N.C.A.A. loophole. Korn is the most ballyhooed addition of the off-season, a former top recruit who battled injuries and ineffectiveness at Clemson before opting to transfer. Now we’ve got another hat in the ring. My guess: Anderson starts the year, but eventually gives way to Korn. I can’t shake the feeling that Graham may end up being the guy; Holliday will get speed on the field, you know that.

Game(s) to watch

The month of September is brutal. The most anticipated of those four games will be Holliday meeting his former team, West Virginia, on Sept. 10. In conference play, four winnable home games are joined by four difficult road games.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I have a few concerns. The least important is the least tangible: a new coach always brings new schemes, and it often takes time for a team to become accustomed to a change in philosophy. My next is this offensive line: it remains a major work in progress. My only hope is that Holliday and his staff can identify a starting lineup by September; I’m not hoping for miracles, obviously. The defense is in good shape, but the secondary — especially if Bembry does not return — will be susceptible to some of Conference USA’s more prolific passing attacks. Of course, the Thundering Herd must also address its quarterback controversy, one that will only intensify when Korn begins to participate in team drills in the fall. This quarterback competition is not a bad thing, however: the cream will rise to the top, whether it’s Anderson, Graham or Korn. So I have a few worries. There is more to like than not, believe it or not. Talent at wide receiver, for starters. A strong front seven, led by talented weak side linebacker Mario Harvey. I also like Holliday, a longtime assistant with deep, meaningful ties to the region. He’s a superb recruiter — his touch has already been felt in this area — and will quickly insert impressive talent all along the roster. All told, however, I expect a slight step back from Marshall in 2010: a tough schedule won’t help, as the Thundering Herd will be lucky to enter conference action with two wins; three losses is more likely. Let’s predict a five-win mark, with Holliday’s ability to identify and land talent a major reason to believe this program will challenge for East division titles for years to come.

Dream season Holliday leads Marshall to a second consecutive bowl trip and a two-win improvement over last season.

Nightmare season Holliday’s first season is quite similar to Snyder’s first: 4-8, and on the wrong end of double-digit margins more often than not.

In case you were wondering

Where do Marshall fans congregate? A few options: check out Herd GrapvineHerd Nation and Inside The Herd. A reader below — he goes by Tomorrow — adds, “The Herd Grapevine and inside the Herd are all but dead. Herdfans.com and Herd Nation are the most active boards.” Great work by him. (Her?) As always, send me your favorite blogs, message boards and local beat reporters yearning to be included in this section.

Up Next

Who is No. 78? Our next university’s past presidents have shared last names with a shortstop for the Boston Red Sox; an all-star designated hitter for the Chicago White Sox; a first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers; a second baseman for the Kansas City Royals; and an outfielder for the New York Mets — all of whom played in the 1980s.

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Comments

  1. i still can’t get over the Syracuse Trivia Fiasco.

  2. jjtiller says:

    Darius Marshall opted to forgo his senior season, but what the hell happened with him after this?

    Paul: He went undrafted in April. He allegedly failed a drug test, at the combine I believe, which ended his draft hopes. He might have signed an undrafted free agent tryout, but I’m not sure with what team. Some Marshall fans would probably know better.

  3. Tomorrow says:

    The Herd Grapevine and inside the Herd are all but dead. Herdfans.com and Herd Nation are the most active boards.
    Rumor is Darius is going to a tryout with Tampa Bay.

    Good article, shows you really did your work. Hoping for 6-6 this year, then CUSA east championships.

  4. SnyderStunk says:

    Snyder underachieved at every turn… Attendance and donations plummeted. You clearly didn’t watch the Marshall at UCF game, the game that sealed Snyder’s fate. He blewwwwwwwwwww that one.

    Love to trip over hack bloggers who live in their mom’s basement and know everything about college football, coast to coast.

  5. philip says:

    listening to some herd fans, snyder’s turnaround didn’t come quickly or decisively enough, which i thought was a shame. good read.

  6. patrick williams says:

    what a knuckle head,deceitful decision head coach made at WV vs marshal game put in a freshman rb after his leaders of team put them in a position to shut the door on WV

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