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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. 97: Marshall

Doc Holliday has passed his first test, which was winning — period. But the winning Marshall has done over Holliday’s first two seasons has come about with Mark Snyder’s players doing a good portion of the heavy lifting, which leads Holliday to his second test: Winning with his own players, not a roster composed predominantly of players recruited and developed by the previous staff. This quest begins in 2012, as Holliday and the Thundering Herd experience some large-scale roster turnover for the first time. But help is on the way. Holliday’s reputation as one of the nation’s premier recruiters was well-deserved: Marshall has recruited as well as any program in Conference USA since his arrival following the 2010 season, reeling in the league’s third- and second-best classes in 2011 and 2012, respectively. More than a third of February’s recruiting class held B.C.S. conference offers — and not just from Duke and Indiana, mind you, but L.S.U., U.S.C., Nebraska and Florida, among others. And yes, help is on the way: 15 of the 30 recruits signed in February were on campus in time for spring ball.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Huntington, W.Va.

Nickname
Thundering Herd

Returning starters
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 97

2011 record
(7-6, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 59

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at West Virginia
  • Sept. 10
    W. Carolina
  • Sept. 15
    Ohio
  • Sept. 22
    Rice
  • Sept. 29
    at Purdue
  • Oct. 6
    Tulsa
  • Oct. 20
    at Southern Miss.
  • Oct. 27
    U.C.F.
  • Nov. 3
    Memphis
  • Nov. 10
    at U.A.B.
  • Nov. 17
    Houston
  • Nov. 24
    at E.C.U.

Last year’s prediction

Looking at this roster, I see an offense in trouble and a defense good enough to win games but not quite good enough to lead the Thundering Herd to 6-6. Again, this defense is good: Curry is an underrated star-in-waiting, the linebacker corps has a nice blend of experience and youth and the secondary returns all four starters. But the offense is questionable, mainly because the running game remains an issue and we don’t yet know, thanks to injuries, what to expect from the receivers. And that’s not mentioning the quarterback situation, which is yet unresolved and might not be decided until September. When taken with the schedule, it’s not exactly a winning situation.

2011 recap

In a nutshell By all accounts, Marshall should not have squeezed into bowl play, let alone won seven games for only the second team in nine years. Marshall was outscored by a shade shy of 100 points on the season, failing to crack the 300-point mark as a team for the fifth straight year while allowing more than that total for the sixth consecutive season. The offense ranked among the bottom 25 nationally in most meaningful offensive categories: rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, first downs, rushing touchdowns and third down conversions, to name a few. The schedule was one of the five toughest among non-B.C.S. conference teams; the Thundering Herd played four 10-win teams in September, for instance. That Marshall was able to cobble together a winning season, taking advantage of a weaker second half while shocking two favorites in September and October, reflects awfully well on Holliday and his staff. What the Herd could use, however, is a Saturday off — not in the traditional sense, with a bye week, but in an easy win: only one of last season’s seven wins came by more than 10 points.

High point Marshall had two impressive wins through the first Saturday of October. Marshall posted a 26-20 home win over Southern Mississippi on Sept. 10; the Golden Eagles would lose only one other game the rest of the season, and not until mid-November. Two weeks later, the Herd notched a 17-13 win at Louisville, handing the program its first win over a B.C.S. conference program since topping Kansas State in 2003. Marshall also closed strong, winning three of its last four to reach bowl eligibility.

Low point Another loss to West Virginia, an ugly showing against Ohio and a loss to U.C.F. where Marshall utterly failed to show up. The latter stands as the Herd’s only head-scratching loss on the season, however; the five remaining losses came to the Mountaineers, Bobcats, Virginia Tech, Houston and Tulsa.

Tidbit Marshall won seven games in 2009, Mark Snyder’s final season with the program, but last fall marked the first time the Thundering Herd had won seven games against F.B.S. competition in a single season since 2003. And unlike in 2003, when the Herd opened the season with a win over Hofstra, each of the Herd’s wins came against teams in the F.B.S.; in addition, the Herd capped last season with a bowl win, unlike in 2003, when Marshall won eight games during the regular season but did not land a postseason invite.

Tidbit (ranked teams edition) Marshall’s win over Kansas State on Sept. 20, 2003, was the program’s last against a ranked opponent. It’s the second of two such wins, joining a 21-16 victory over then-No. 20 Miami (Ohio) in 1976. Since beating the Wildcats, Marshall has dropped 13 straight games against ranked opposition, including three — West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Houston — a year ago. Last fall marked the first season in program history that the Herd played three ranked teams in the same season; if you use the final rankings, which adds Southern Mississippi, Marshall played four ranked teams.

Tidbit (Texas edition) Marshall doesn’t play well in Texas. The Herd are 0-8 all-time in games played in the Lone Star State, with all eight losses coming since 2004. The streak began in 2004 with a loss to Cincinnati in the Fort Worth Bowl; that was followed by a loss to UTEP in 2005, to S.M.U. in 2006, Houston in 2007, Rice in 2008, UTEP in 2009, S.M.U. in 2010 and Houston a year ago. What’s ironic about this losing streak is that Marshall is a perfect 8-0 against Texas-based teams in games played in Huntington: North Texas in 1988, S.M.U. in 2005 and 2009, UTEP in 2006 and 2010, Rice in 2007 and 2011 and Houston in 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

13 OT Daniel Baldridge (Jacksonville), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (New York Giants), CB Omar Brown (Baltimore), DE Vinny Curry (Philadelphia), LB Mario Harvey (Indianapolis), DT Delvin Johnson (Washington), DT Johnny Jones (Green Bay), C Doug Legursky (Pittsburgh), LS Chris Massey (Chicago), DE Albert McClellan (Baltimore), WR Randy Moss (San Francisco), TE Lee Smith (Buffalo), S C.J. Spillman (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

N.B.A. teams most likely to win two titles before 2015
1. Oklahoma City Thunder.
2. Miami Heat.
3. Chicago Bulls.
4. Denver Nuggets.
5. San Antonio Spurs.

Coaching

John “Doc” Holliday (West Virginia ’79), 12-13 after two seasons with the program. Holliday was hired to replace Mark Snyder, who resigned – or was fired, but that’s semantics – after going 22-37 over five seasons at Marshall. After closing strong in 2010, his debut season, Holliday led the Thundering Herd into bowl play last fall; so far, so good. The vast majority of Holliday’s experience came at his alma mater, where he accepted a graduate assistant position immediately upon exhausting his eligibility in 1979. He served at West Virginia from 1979-99, mostly as the receivers coach (1983-89, 1993-99) but also as the 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 the late Bill Stewart’s top assistant following Rich Rodriguez’s departure for Michigan following the 2007 season. As his resume shows, Holliday had never held a head coaching position on any level, nor even a coordinator position, before being tabbed at Marshall. So how did he get this far? His ability to recruit, of course. This reputation has grown exponentially over the last decade, a period that saw 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 efforts. Is this enough to justify landing a head coach position on the F.B.S. level? Nowadays, yes. But any questions about his ability to lead his own program were answered down the stretch in 2010 and during last season’s run to bowl play. Even if the Herd take a slight step back this season, Holliday looks like the right man for the job.

Players to watch

Marshall’s issues on offense have stymied this team for years, which is a strange development for those familiar with the team’s history as an offensive innovator and frontrunner. Those days are long gone, true, but the Thundering Herd do return enough experience to take a nice step forward on offense — then again, it’s hard to imagine the offense faring any worse than it did last fall, when it ranked among the worst in college football. However, given how the upper crust of Conference USA has moved into the national conversation thanks to tremendous offensive potency, Marshall’s inability to put points on the board with any degree of consistency has prevented it from moving into the top half of the league.

But there is returning experience at each position: the starting quarterback, two leading rushers, two leading receivers and the program’s best offensive line depth in years. As is often the case, it does begin up front. It’s along the offensive line that Holliday and his staff have done yeoman’s work on the recruiting trail, helping Marshall accumulate more than 20 linemen – more than a few are walk-ons – on the roster altogether. While two seniors must be replaced, the Herd have options at their disposal. It helped that right guard John Bruhin landed a sixth year of eligibility; his return, even if Bruhin has injury issues to address, helps solidify the interior of the line.

He’s not the only interior lineman with injury woes: Chris Jasperse, Marshall’s sophomore center, has been dealing with a bad back. Here’s where the Herd’s depth will come in handy. With Bruhin and Jasperse on the mend, Marshall can rely on reserves like Channing Smith – who earned some starting snaps at center during the spring – James Allen and Grady Kerr. When it comes to left guard, Marshall can either go with returning starter Garrett Scott, a junior, or sophomore Josh Lovell, last year’s backup at right tackle. There will be two new starters at tackle: for now, JUCO transfer Gage Niemeyer will start on the left side while Scott moves out to the strong side. This would change if Scott moves back inside to guard, though I think he’s likely locked into the tackle job.

The line needs to do a better job in the running game – the group must be a bit more physical, especially if you consider the fact that a powerful ground game can help keep offenses at Houston, Tulsa, E.C.U. and elsewhere on the sidelines. The big question at running back is the availability of sophomore Travon Van (551 yards), who might not be able to take contact until late in August, if not until just before the start of the regular season. The good news? Marshall brings back Tron Martinez (team-best 649 yards), the no-flash, few-frills junior, as well as junior Essray Taliaferro, senior Martin Ward and freshman Kevin Rodriguez – a walk-on who had a very nice spring.

Seniors lead the way at receiver. Two are returning starters: Aaron Dobson (49 catches for 668 yards) and Antavious Wilson (29 for 462). Dobson makes his chances count; he tied for second in Conference USA with 12 touchdown grabs, taking one in for a score on nearly a quarter of his total receptions. There’s a hole in the slot, where Marshall lost Troy Evans, but the Herd like senior Andre Booker, who made 17 grabs as a sophomore before taking a step down in the rotation last fall. The issue is mainly depth, as while junior Jermaine Kelson (23 for 208) is a nice secondary option in the slot, the second tier lacks proven production. Keep an eye on youngsters like Chris Alston, Craig Wilkins and Davonte Allen; each will be given the opportunity to make noise behind the three seniors – and make a case for a starting role in 2013. Marshall also has a nice one-two punch at tight end in Gator Hoskins (14 for 123) and C.J. Crawford (21 for 175).

This is Rakeem Cato’s offense. This is also his team. He needs to step up his game accordingly. One benefit to losing would-be junior A.J. Graham, who was dismissed from the team in March, is that it removes the specter of a quick hook from Cato’s radar: Holliday and his staff have protected Cato thus far, but perhaps the sophomore can take a deep breath and relax, knowing that there’s no question as to who will take every meaningful snap under center for the Herd in 2012.

Cato is one player who will take a nice step forward this fall. He wasn’t awful as a freshman starter a season ago: Cato threw for 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns despite missing most of three games while completing just a shade under 60 percent of his attempts. Not great numbers, no, but Cato did play well enough to expect further growth heading into his second season in the starting lineup. One positive from Cato’s freshman campaign was that he played his best football down the stretch, throwing the ball extremely well in the must-win game against E.C.U. and in the bowl win over the Golden Panthers. More will be expected from him as a sophomore, even if Cato remains a bit of a work in progress.

So long, Vinny Curry. It was so, so, so much fun while it lasted. Curry, the reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and an all-around menace, takes with him the heart and soul of Marshall’s pass rush. How will the Herd retool? It seems like Holliday was preparing for this day to come: Marshall has stockpiled and developed talent over the last 24 months, both at end and inside, and this defense will be counting on these returning linemen to help pick up the slack. No one player will replace Curry’s production; instead, Holliday and his staff will throw numbers at the problem.

And Marshall might shake things up a bit, utilizing a three-man defensive front a bit more often than in the recent past. The Herd have the size to make this work, especially with several in-between tackles capable of playing end in a 3-4 look. Going off the idea that Marshall will spend the majority of its time in the 4-3, however, the starting four should feature Alex Bazzie (21 tackles) and Jeremiah Taylor (42 tackles, 4.5 sacks) at end and Marques Aiken (39 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and Brandon Sparrow (22 tackles) at tackle. Taylor is another player who could break out, even if he did greatly benefit from the attention paid to Curry and plus-sized nose tackle Delvin Johnson. Sparrow will step into Johnson’s shoes on the nose, but he doesn’t quite bring the same heft to the position – and you worry about Marshall’s run defense as a result.

But don’t question the amount of talent along the defensive line, even if Curry’s departure looms large. Marshall has talent, even if a good portion of it needs at least another year’s worth of seasoning. If he can carry his strong spring into September, sophomore Ra’Shawde Myers is going to hold a big role at end. Freshman tackle Steve Dillon has tremendous promise. Likewise with redshirt freshman Jarquez Samuel. It just may take some time for the Herd to find the best rotation.

There’s speed to burn at linebacker, though Marshall must replace a pair of productive outside linebackers in Tyson Gale and George Carpenter. Holliday and defensive coordinator Chris Rippon will move Devin Arrington (77 tackles) down from the secondary to replace Gale, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he can put his speed to good use on the second level. As of now, I’d wager that junior Billy Mitchell gets the nod on the strong side, where he backed up Carpenter last fall.

But the story at linebacker is youth, beginning with sophomore Jermaine Holmes (26 tackles), the returning starter at middle linebacker, and continuing with fellow sophomores Cortez Carter, Deon Meadows and Raheem Waiters. Marshall also has another five freshmen – two redshirt, three true – who could push for snaps. While Marshall is fairly young at linebacker, there’s more than enough depth for this defense to move into the 3-4 with ease.

Everything on defense comes back to the pass rush. This is Conference USA, remember: the best teams throw the ball with abandon. Whether Marshall can return to bowl play – let alone move up the East standings – depends solely on how well this defense gets to Geno Smith, Tyler Tettleton, David Piland and the heirs to the starting jobs at E.C.U., Tulsa and Southern Mississippi. Any concerns with the back end of this defense, particularly at safety, can be assuaged by a strong pass rush. Is Taylor ready to assume Curry’s mantle? Will speed at outside linebacker translate to more pressure in the backfield? Will the pass rush suffer if and when Marshall does move into a three-linemen look? These are questions that Rippon, Holliday and the Thundering Herd hope to answer before kicking off against West Virginia.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary Beyond losing Curry, putting a severe dent in Marshall’s pass rush, the Herd must retool in the secondary. Two very underrated starters must be replaced: Omar Brown at free safety and Rashad Jackson at cornerback. This pair combined for eight interceptions, more than half of the team’s total; Brown also led Marshall in tackles, helping him earn first-team all-Conference USA honors. With Arrington making a permanent move down to linebacker, Rippon and safeties coach Todd Hartley will need to remake the position from scratch — nearly from scratch, rather.

The two starters during the spring are not new to Marshall; they’ll just be new to playing time, let alone a starting role. One likely starting safety, Zach Dunston, played in only six games a year ago — though he did block a kick in the bowl game against F.I.U., helping propel the Herd to victory. His running mate, D.J. Hunter, is a redshirt freshman. It’s only natural to expect a decline in production at both free and strong safety. But the situation is much better at cornerback, even if the Herd will miss Jackson’s ability to force turnovers. Two returning cornerbacks, Monterious Lovett (53 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Darryl Roberts (37 tackles), have made 16 and 14 career starts, respectively.

A third cornerback, Keith Baxter, broke into the rotation as a true freshman last fall. And a fourth, true freshman A.J. Leggett, was the star of this February’s recruiting class. I’m as excited to see him play in 2012 as any player on this roster. The best news? The youth at cornerback: Roberts and Lovett are juniors, Baxter a sophomore and Leggett a true freshman. By 2013, this crop could be special. But overall, the secondary is cause for concern — especially with the Herd’s pass rush projected to take a step back. One way the Herd can offset any such decline is if the cornerbacks play beyond their years. The talent is there, but it may take some time for this group to round into form.

Game(s) to watch

There are three key games in September, even if we don’t include West Virginia in the conversation. After tripping out of the gate to open each of Holliday’s first two seasons, it would be great for the Thundering Herd to start strong; that makes games against Western Carolina, Ohio and Purdue, the latter at home, three of the biggest games of the year. The Herd also get three major Conference USA contenders at home: Tulsa, Houston and U.C.F. come to Huntington. I’d rather get a team like E.C.U. at home, but that’s just me.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Marshall can tout tremendous athleticism and potential nearly across the board, but this sort of talent and promise comes with a cost: the Thundering Herd are one of the youngest teams in college football. There are only six seniors on the roster: Dobson, Wilson and Booker at receiver; Ward at running back; Bruhin at guard; and Arrington at outside linebacker. The roster as a whole is defined by overwhelming youth – but again, this is youth with tremendous potential. This lends credence to the idea that Marshall is one year away from making a major move in the Conference USA standings. Consider where the Thundering Herd will stand a year down the road, when players like Cato are more experienced, the offensive line a year wiser, the defensive line even deeper and the secondary loaded with upperclassmen, not juniors, sophomores and freshmen. The Herd will be a Conference USA player in 2013 and 2014. This year? I’m not sure how Marshall can be expected to return to postseason play. There are wins here – at least four – but I can’t see Marshall compiling any extended winning streaks; on the other hand, I could see the Herd dropping three or four straight in September and October. Even if Marshall doesn’t win another six games during the regular season, this team should get better every week. Hopefully, Marshall can close strong and use that as a springboard into 2013.

Dream season The defense does a better job getting to the quarterback without Curry, believe it or not, which helps Marshall fend off pass-happy teams like Tulsa, E.C.U. and Southern Mississippi during Conference USA play. While the offense starts slow, the Thundering Herd eventually score enough points to win nine games for the first time since 2002.

Nightmare season This young roster is not ready for prime time. The offense fails to move the ball with any consistency; the defense can’t hang with Conference USA’s upper crust. The end result is a slide down to 3-9, with wins over Western Carolina, Memphis and U.A.B.

In case you were wondering

Where do Marshall fans congregate? A few options: check out Herd GrapvineHerd NationInside The Herd,  Herdfans.com and Herd Haven. The latter was a new addition last summer. And, as always, there’s Chuck McGill of the Charleston Daily Mail. You should also follow McGill on Twitter.

Marshall’s all-name nominee WR Jazz King.

Word Count

Through 28 teams 95,154.

Up Next

Who is No. 96? The founder of tomorrow’s university was the grandson of a Revolutionary War solider – he reached the rank of colonel – who served under a future Senator from the second former colony to achieve statehood in 1787.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    Temple?

  2. David says:

    Kentucky is next.

  3. philip says:

    comprehensive and heartening for my herd friends.

    just as a head’s up: as usually happens, we take our best writers and turn them into editors, mr. mcgill is now the daily mail’s sports editor. (http://dailymail.com/Sports/201205150099)

    but … the blog link should be valid for whoever gets hired to fill his sizable shoes.

    keep on keeping on.

  4. Eksynyt says:

    Paul, you have Marshall hosting Rice in the schedule, but they actually play Rice in Houston this year.

  5. Matt says:

    I know this a bit late, so you probably won’t see it, but Inside the Herd no longer exists, as Herd Haven has moved to scout.

    There is also an emerging board on CSNbbs called 3rd Ave. & 20th Street Forum.

    http://csnbbs.com/forumdisplay.php?fid=434

  6. Toofless says:

    The Marshall football program is pathetic. This is the most realistic ranking of it that I’ve seen this preseason.

    Bad times ahead.

    Silver lining: C-USA is so bad now (basically a Sun Belt twin) that even this sorry group may find itself being competitive.

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