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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

Do you remember when Marshall crashed the party? I do: the year was 1997, and after thoroughly dominating the F.C.S. for the previous six years, the Thundering Herd opted to try out the big time. It was a successful trip, one that featured an immediate three-year run of 25-4 that culminated in a perfect 13-0 mark in 1999. Thirty-eight wins over the next four years cemented Marshall’s status as a non-B.C.S. conference behemoth, but it’s been a less than fruitful existence in the years since: one winning season, the program’s first nine-loss season since 1981 and plenty of frustration. So you can see why a fan base accustomed to a high level of success is getting plenty anxious.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Huntington, W.Va.

Nickname
Thundering Herd

Returning starters
14 (5 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 79

2010 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 83

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at West Virginia
  • Sept. 10
    Southern Miss.
  • Sept. 17
    at Ohio
  • Sept. 24
    Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 1
    at Louisville
  • Oct. 8
    at U.C.F.
  • Oct. 15
    Rice
  • Oct. 22
    at Houston
  • Oct. 29
    U.A.B.
  • Nov. 12
    Tulsa
  • Nov. 19
    at Memphis
  • Nov. 26
    E.C.U.

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The year went as one would expect under a rookie coach, especially one whose debut schedule started with a bang and got progressively easier down the stretch. Marshall opened 1-6 thanks to a very tough start, which saw the Thundering Herd play six bowl teams, four on the road. The defense failed them early: West Virginia won despite scoring 24 points, but each of Ohio State, Bowling Green, Southern Mississippi, U.C.F. and East Carolina scored at least 35 points. And then there was a nice end to the year, which saw Marshall get within a win of bowl play. The pessimist would say that the 1-6 start was more indicative of what Marshall was in 2011; the optimist would say the 4-1 finish was a sign of a team coming together under a rookie coach, as well as a sign of things to come. I’m somewhere in the middle.

High point A 4-1 stretch from Oct. 30 on. So the wins came over some weak opposition. It was still a nice way to end the season, and provided the program with a boost heading into the winter.

Low point The 1-6 start. The lone win came at home over Ohio, after the Bobcats came within a point following a touchdown with no time remaining but opted to go for two and failed, putting the Thundering Herd in the win c0lumn. Five of the wins were understandable, one was not: Bowling Green put up 44 points on Marshall on Sept. 18. Oh, and there was an overtime loss to West Virginia, which was amazingly painful, as anyone who witnessed that game can attest.

Tidbit Marshall played as many youngsters as any team in the country last fall. In all, the Thundering Herd burned the redshirt on 12 true freshmen, which tied for ninth nationally and was second behind all non-B.C.S. conference teams, trailing only Air Force. In terms of total freshmen played, both true and redshirts, Marshall’s 28 ranked second in the F.B.S. behind Florida.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) Holliday’s impact has already been felt on the recruiting trail, as many predicted. He’s aimed high, going after some big-name recruits, and while Marshall has been largely unable to land a premier prospect, the staff’s efforts will hopefully become more fruitful once — or if, I suppose — Marshall begins winning with more consistency. Last year’s class, according to Rivals.com, ranked third in Conference USA; that tied Marshall’s best finish, set from 2006-8, according to the site’s rankings.

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 OT Daniel Baldridge (Jacksonville), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (New York Giants), S Chris Crocker (Cincinnati), QB Byron Leftwich (Pittsburgh), C Doug Legursky (Pittsburgh), LS Chris Massey (St. Louis), DE Albert McCllelan (Baltimore), WR Randy Moss (Tennessee), QB Chad Pennington (Miami), TE Cody Slate (Kansas City), TE Lee Smith (New England), S C.J. Spillman (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

N.F.L. players, finished 2-5 in Heisman voting, 1990-99
1. QB Peyton Manning, Tennessee (2nd, 1997).
2. OT Orlando Pace, Ohio State (4th, 1996).
3. RB Marshall Faulk, San Diego State (2nd, 1992; 3rd, 1993).
4. WR Randy Moss, Marshall (4th, 1997).
5. QB Drew Brees, Purdue (4th, 1999).

Coaching

John “Doc” Holliday (West Virginia ’79), 5-7 after one season with the program. Holliday was hired 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 came 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 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 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? Nowadays, yes. Any questions about his ability to lead his own program were answered down the stretch last fall, at least somewhat.

Players to watch

The offensive line is keyed by the return of two experienced hands in left tackle Ryan Tillman and right guard C.J. Wood. The seniors have combined to make more than 50 career starts, which separates them from what will be a relatively inexperienced group filling out the rest of the depth chart. Right tackle Corey Tenney closed last season as the starter at right tackle — a spot he continues to hold — but he’s still only a sophomore with two career starts, so he’s still raw. Yet he’s a veteran compared to left guard Garrett Scott, who lined up at right tackle last fall but played little. Then there’s the nice story of former walk-on Chris Jasperse, who arrived in Huntington last summer and has already worked his way to scholarship and a spot in the starting lineup. Great story. But the offensive line, which struggled last fall, looks like a concern again as we head into 2011.

The story at receiver this spring: injuries. Those from a year ago sidelined returning options like Andre Booker, DeMetrius Evans  and Antavious Wilson, though Wilson was back for the tail end of the spring. For now, until we know how someone like Dobson or Wilson — who tore his A.C.L. last fall — returns from injury, it’s hard to predict what the Thundering Herd will get at receiver. If the group comes back to full health — and remains healthy — it could be fine, though the Herd will miss a tight end like Lee Smith, one of Conference USA’s best at the position. Marshall moved quarterback Conelius Jones, a pretty nice recruit, out to receiver in the spring to best utilize his athleticism. He has the ability, but I’d think the transition to receiver might find him lower on the depth chart in 2011.

The struggles in the running game have roots in the substandard play of the offensive line, and any improvement we see in 2011 will be as a result of stronger play up front. It would help if Marshall could locate a lead back, but it seems as if the Thundering Herd will head into the fall with three or four backs sharing the load. Well, at least three: Martin Ward (team-leading 345 yards), Tron Martinez (262 yards) and Essray Taliaferro (98 yards, 4.9 yards per carry). Each earned some praise during the spring but must produce come the fall, and if I’m Holliday, I’m finding the hot hand and riding him until he drops.

From top to bottom, quarterback — see below — to the line, to running backs, receivers, the story isn’t good on offense. Marshall lacks explosiveness at the skill positions; hasn’t shown an ability to run the ball with consistency; lacks experience under center; and, perhaps most importantly, seems to suffer from a lack of confidence. So it may very well be on the defense, once again, to carry a mediocre offensive attack.

The defense is good enough to do so, even without spectacular weak side linebacker Mario Harvey (143 tackles, 17.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks) and multiple-year starting tackle Michael Janac. Those are the only two lost starters, though Harvey — check out those numbers — was one of the most underrated defenders in the nation. The star of the defense now becomes end Vinny Curry, who finished in the top five nationally in sacks (12, 18 tackles for loss) but now must prove he can get to the quarterback while standing in a spotlight of attention once shared by Harvey.

Perhaps that’s why Curry opted to return to school: to show last season wasn’t a fluke. I don’t think it was; I think his breakout 2010 campaign was more a result of a player coming into his own, albeit with some help from his teammates. Now that Harvey is gone, Curry becomes Marshall’s contender for conference defensive player of the year, and he has the talent to do so. The interior of the line must replace Janac but returns 18-game starter Delvin Johnson and a pair of former reserves with starting experience in Brandon Sparrow and Brandon Bullock. Sparrow, a sophomore, was singled out for his play during the spring.

The biggest quest for Marshall is replacing Harvey, which is as daunting as it sounds. There’s depth coming up the pipeline at linebacker but this season belongs to the game-tested juniors and seniors: Tyson Gale, Devin Arrington, Kellen Harris and George Carpenter, to name a few. Not one is on Harvey’s level, but few are, of course. This quartet should see most of the action, but the story at linebacker is the arrival of a handful of new arrivals come the fall, led by incoming freshmen Jermaine Holmes and Armonze Daniels.

The secondary brings back all four of last season’s starters. The Browns — Omar and Donald, no relation — are at safety; each tied for the team lead with three interceptions last fall. Also chipping in with three picks was Rashad Jackson, who will team with Monterius Lovett at cornerback. So the back end of the defense is the most experienced grouping on the defense, which is a good thing for a unit that gave up some big numbers to Conference USA’s more potent passing attacks. The added experience will help, and if Marshall can continue to get to the quarterback the defense should be better than it was a year ago — and should be the strength of the team.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Marshall was in a similar situation a year ago, with a slight twist: the Thundering Herd had a returning starter in Brian Anderson but were entertaining several options to unseat the senior. Anderson won that competition, though he continued to struggle with turnovers. At least he was experienced, however; Marshall is short on experience heading into 2011, with the two frontrunners — sophomores A.J. Graham and Eddie Sullivan — bringing 36 combined attempts into 2011. I wrote last summer that Graham, the former Florida Mr. Football, was the future at the position. He certainly looked the part in October, when he stepped in for an injured Anderson and hit on 10 of 12 attempts in a loss to Southern Mississippi before suffering an ankle injury. That setback opened the door for Sullivan, a taller pocket passer, to step into the backup role and gain valuable experience — in other words, I’d say that Graham’s injury gave Sullivan the chance to show the coaching staff what he’s capable of, which in turn created a more competitive quarterback quandary. All things being equal, it seems that what Marshall wants to accomplish offensively will play a role in the final decision: both can make things happen with their legs, but Graham seems like the more athletic. Incoming freshmen Rakeem Cato and Eric Frohnapfel arrive in the fall, but this looks like a two-horse race.

Game(s) to watch

Rice and Memphis. Lose either one of those games and you can pretty much write off any chance at bowl play.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I look at that schedule and shiver: if you thought last season featured a difficult start, check out 2011. Marshall opens the year with six straight games against 2010 bowl participants; four of those games — heated rival West Virginia, Ohio, Louisville and U.C.F. — come on the road. Last fall, the Thundering Herd were able to rebound from that 1-6 start to finish a respectable 5-7, winning four of five to end the season. The second half of 2011 is far less kind: Tulsa won’t be as good but will still be dangerous, Houston will be much improved and E.C.U. can score at will anytime, so it’s not a six-game stretch conducive to a second-half run. That’s just the schedule, which is entirely flexible based on the whims of the coming season. 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.

Dream season The offense exceeds all expectations, combining with a stellar defense to lead the Thundering Herd to a surprising 9-3 finish.

Nightmare season Poor offense, rough schedule, a disappointing defense. This trio of factors combine in a terrible fashion during an ugly, disappointing, 2-10 season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Marshall fans congregate? A few options: check out Herd GrapvineHerd Nation and Inside The Herd. Last summer, a reader added Herdfans.com to the list of places to visit. As always, send me your favorite blogs, message boards and local beat reporters yearning to be included in this section. A reader lists a new blog below titled Herd Haven, so go check that out, Marshall fans.

Word Count

Through 24 teams 62,884.

Up Next

Who is No. 96? Mistype one letter when searching for directions to tomorrow’s university and you’ll end up about 730 miles from your intended destination.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Miami of Ohio is my guess. If you mistype Miami OH as Miami OK you will end up in Oklahoma at the northeast corner near Missouri.

  2. jd says:

    Duke! Durham, NC -> Durham, NH

  3. jd says:

    It’s unbelievable how many teams come close to fitting this criteria.

    UL Monroe? Monroe, LA -> Monroe, IA

  4. M Meyer says:

    There are several Oxfords, if you want to add Ole Miss to the mix.

  5. schedule nit says:

    Paul, what are you going to use for questions when you learn to type properly?

    Paul: I don’t know. Really having a harder time finding clues for teams this summer. Maybe I’ll reuse old ones since you can’t find those previews anymore.

  6. 6hearts says:

    I guess it could even be Rutgers – New Brunswick, NJ to New Brunswick, Canada

  7. Alex Payne says:

    Using Google Maps, I nominate LA-Monroe.

  8. Sasser says:

    I watched that Marshall-WV game last year because I enjoyed the idea of an upset… those last 12 minutes or so of the game were brutal. The Herd suddenly couldn’t get anything to go right.

  9. matt says:

    Just a heads up, Herdgrapevine & inside the herd are, for the most part, dead. However there is a new site called Herd Haven.

    Also Conelius Jones, not Cornelius, will most likely be in the regular receiving rotation.

    And look out for Travon Van, a former Florida recruit who was a NQ, to come in and end up starting at RB after a game or two. Starting out, it’ll probably be Tron Martinez.

    Finally, Sullivan is noticeably smaller than Graham and a bit faster, however he tends to get happy feet under pressure…

    Paul: Saw Jones’ first name spelled both ways in local papers, I assumed Cornelius was right. Thanks for pointing it out, fixing above. And thanks for the new site. Heard good things about Martinez during the spring.

  10. matt says:

    Yeah, both he and Essray earned their scholarships for this upcoming school year.

    Paul: Great for those guys. But it does say something about the running back depth. Wonder if Holliday is going to go after backs hard in this recruiting cycle.

  11. matt says:

    He already has his guy in Travon Van, who was steered to him by Urban Meyer when he could not qualify at Florida. He was a Rivals 4*. However, this past cycle he stole Steward Butler of Lakeland, FL from Arizona State. Butler led the state of Florida in yardage with 3,043 yds.

  12. James says:

    Doc had one of the best non-BCS recruiting classes in the country this year according to Rivals. That may or may not alter the trajectory that MU is currently on but it certainly is a wild card worth considering.

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