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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


On the all-name college football team, Marshall University is well-represented. We are intrigued about the unique first names such as Tron, Antavious, Gage, and Ra’Shawde...the variety is indeed fascinating!

And, speaking of all-name candidates, is there a more dashing-sounding QB in the country than Rakeem Cato (left)? If the Thundering Herd signal-caller doesn’t eventually make it into the NFL, he might have a job waiting for him at Marvel Comics as a superhero.

We’re having some fun with Marshall because things are starting to look up again in Huntington after a rather slow start to the Doc Holliday regime in 2010. Last season, however, the Herd began to find its stride just in time to get bowl-eligible, then managed to pin Florida International by a 20-10 score in the all-name bowl, the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg, played at The Trop, the quirky indoor of the MLB Tampa Bay Rays.

Tron, Gage, Rakeem Cato, The Trop, Beef O‘Brady’s Bowl...hardly the sort of traditional college football names and games that would bring to mind the likes of Frank Leahy, Darrell Royal, or the Rose Bowl!

But those funky labels are all part of the Thundering Herd experience, which included enduring a brutal schedule last fall that featured a pair of BCS qualifiers and only five home games before scratching and clawing to bowl-eligibility. Not bad.

Still, there are some Marshall backers who remember the not long-ago glory days in Huntington and are hardly inclined to give Holliday, who was talking big when he took the job off of West Virginia’s staff two years ago, a lot of rope. Holliday, who promised fast-paced, uptempo offenses like those Mountaineer strike forces from earlier in the decade, has yet to deliver on that front...the Herd made it to the bowl game at The Trop despite an offense that ranked 102nd in the country and scored only 21.9 ppg, good only for a 99th standing nationally.

That’s not what Herd fans had gotten used to seeing over the past couple of decades.

Of course, Marshall and football conjure up a variety of mixed images. Those old enough to recall can certainly remember the chilling developments back in November of 1970, when the team’s Southern Airways DC-9 charter crashed upon approach to the Huntington airport. The Herd was on the way home from a 17-14 loss vs. East Carolina at Greenville earlier that day. All 75 on board, including 37 football players, eight coaches, and 25 boosters, perished.

Ironically, Marshall would rarely fly to football games in those days, usually traveling to regional destinations via bus, and the Southern Airways charter was the first time the team flew to a road game that season.

Many of those not old enough to recall what happened in November of 1970 are still probably familiar with the tragedy thanks to the recent movie We Are Marshall, an eventually-uplifting flick focusing upon the Herd program’s brave return to the gridiron under HC Jack Lengyel after the accident.

That November, 1970 tragedy also concluded the most-grisly autumn in college football history, as just six weeks earlier, a smaller Wichita State charter had crashed in the Rockies en route to a game at Utah State, killing 30, including 13 players and several coaches that numbered HC Ben Wilson. The other charter carrying the rest of the team made it safely to Utah. Amazingly, the remainder of the Wheatshocker team returned to action later that season, with the NCAA granting a temporary waiver to allow frosh (then ineligible for varsity play) to participate. Marshall received the same sort of waiver from the NCAA when it returned to the gridiron in 1971.

As could be expected, it took the Herd a while to recover from the disaster, as the football program could not gain any traction through the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. Marshall was 23-83 in the ‘70s, and upon joining the Southern Conference in the middle of the decade, was winless in its first 27 league games. But fortunes began to turn in the mid ‘80s under HC Stan Parrish, who in 1984 authored the Herd’s first winning season in 20 years. (Parrish was not, however, able to replicate that magic at his next career stop, Kansas State, nor much later in his career at Ball State.)

Marshall continued to win under successor George Chaump, who would eventually leave for Navy, and then the program really took off under Jim Donnan, who won a I-AA national title in 1992 before being hired away by Georgia, and Bob Pruett, whose 1996 team featuring WR Randy Moss (left) won the I-AA crown as well, paving a move to the I-A ranks and the Mid-American Conference the following year.

The Donnan and Pruett powerhouses set the standard by which the Herd’s future teams would be measured. Moss was hardly the only high-profile performer of the glory era, as QBs Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich would also move on to long and productive pro careers. Pruett’s Herd won the first four and fix of six MAC titles after joining the MAC, qualifying for bowls each season, with the Pennington-led 1999 edition ranking 10th in the final polls after a 21-3 win in the Motor City Bowl over BYU. Along the way the Herd also authored the biggest comeback in bowl history, rallying from a 38-8 halftime deficit vs. East Carolina in the 2001 GMAC Bowl to eventually score a 64-61 double-OT win featuring five Leftwich TD passes.

The Pruett regime, however, ended awkwardly when the NCAA penalized the program for a job scheme to non-qualifiers which extended back as far as the early Donnan years. Pruett endured for a couple of seasons after the school was penalized but his regime had run its course by 2004; he had been feuding with school administrators for a few years by the time he resigned after a Fort Worth Bowl loss to Cincinnati.

Still, the bar had been set rather high in Huntington, and Pruett successor Mark Snyder, off of Jim Tressel’s Ohio State staff, never satisfied the masses that had become used to winning big in the preceding years. Saddled with scholarship limitations from NCAA penalties earlier in the decade, Snyder’s Herd slipped, and even though rallying to get bowl-eligible in 2009, Snyder resigned under pressure following a regular season-ending 52-21 drubbing at UTEP. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter coached the Herd on an interim basis in Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Bowl in which Marshall defeated Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats, 21-17.

Now, Holliday is feeling a bit of pressure, even after squeezing into a bowl game last fall. At 12-13 over his first two seasons, and the offense hardly resembling the old versions featuring the likes of Moss, Pennington, and Leftwich, Holliday not only has to win, but apparently do it in some style to appease the rather-spoiled Herd support base.

These supporters in coal-mining country almost sound like European soccer fans, maybe even those at Real Madrid, who famously demand prosaic soccer along with the winning.

Style points aside, Holliday at least seems to have the Herd headed in the right direction,...even if it's not as fast the Marshall backers would like.

There are some other considerations in the mix at Huntington these days, too. The Herd, upwardly mobile over the past 15 years, having stepped up to Division I-A (now FBS) and the MAC in ‘97 and then upgrading to Conference USA in 2005, believes it could be on the Big East’s radar now that in-state West Virginia has left the fold for the Big XII. In fact, some regional observers expected Marshall to join fellow CUSA members UCF, Memphis, Houston, and SMU in moving to the Big East. But the Herd was bypassed in the most-recent round of Big East expansion.

“I can’t worry about other schools,” said the taciturn Marshall AD, Mike Hamrick, regarding another possible conference shift. “I worry about Marshall, what we need to do to get better, to improve our facilities, which we are doing to the tune of $30 million. We need to worry about ourselves.”

Still, most regional insiders believe the Herd could yet be in the future plans of the Big East, pending any future conference defections. Stay tuned for further developments.

How Holliday follows up last year’s bowl visit will go a long way to solidifying his status with the Herd faithful. Holliday, also considered a recruiting whiz from not only his days at West Virginia, but previously at Florida, now has a roster consisting almost entirely of his recruits. Seniors recruited by the preceding Snyder regime are about as rare on the 2012 Herd as GOP House members from New England. In fact, their numbers could barely fill a kitchen table, as only six seniors (!) are on this year’s squad.

The Herd, however, does begin 2012 with some momentum after winning four of its last five, including the bowl over FIU, a year ago. Moreover, the aforementioned QB Rakeem Cato (left) will not be looking over his shoulder this fall as former starter A.J. Graham, lurking in the background last fall, was dismissed from the team in spring.

Cato had his ups and downs as a frosh, winning the starting job, then being pulled for Graham, before returning to the pilot seat later in the season and into the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl at The Trop. Along the way he became more comfy in o.c. Bill Legg’s multiple offensive package, displaying an exciting, playmaking bent and ending up passing for 2059 yards, fourth among all frosh QBs a year ago.

Beyond Cato, the top two rushers (Tron Martinez and Travor Van) return from last season, as does the top receiver, sr. Aaron Dobson (right), a 6'3 specimen who dabbled with the idea of coming out early for last April’s NFL Draft before deciding to return to Huntington.

Dobson is also a human highlight-reel (check out on YouTube “the catch” he made vs. East Carolina last November) and a featured member of the only position on the roster littered with seniors. Indeed, three of them will start at WR spots; beyond Dobson and his 49 catches and 12 TDs a year ago, sr. Antavious Wilson is a big-play threat who gained almost 16 yards per catch in 2011.

As for RBs Martinez and Van, they form an effective 1-2 punch, size clones (both around 5'10 and 200 lbs.) who combined for 1200 YR, and 77% of the Herd rushing output, last fall.

Still, the Marshall infantry is more of a diversion, set up almost completely by the aerial game; the Herd’s modest 120 ypg rushing a year ago ranked a lowly 96th nationally. Martinez (left, vs. Louisville last fall) ) and Van also missed spring work as they recovered from minor surgical procedures, although each figures to be ready for fall camp. A couple of non-qualifiers from 2011, speedsters Kevin Grooms and Stew Butler, are both eligible and could alter the RB mix.

There are also concerns along an offensive line that got bullied often a year ago must blood a pair of new tackles this fall. Holliday and o.c. Legg realize the need to forge an upgrade from their forward wall which contributed to those low rankings in rushing and fourth-down conversions (a poor 117th nationally) last season. One of those earlier “all-name” components, juco Gage Neimeyer, is expected to step into the vacant (and crucial) LT spot that protects Cato’s backside.

Meanwhile, only one senior returns to a defense that must replace do-everything DE Vinny Curry (right), who ranked among the nation’s leaders in sacks, tackles for a loss, and forced fumbles in 2011 when he also won the Conference USA Defensive MVP award. He also almost single-handedly helped the Herd into top 20 national rankings in tackles for loss and red-zone efficiency defense.

Curry, however, will be spending this summer and fall with the NFL Philadelphia Eagles after they selected him in the second round of April’s draft. Another impact performer from last year’s stop unit, safety Omar Brown, has also graduated and will be spending summer in the Baltimore Ravens camp.

That one aforementioned returning senior, Devin Arrington (left), is transitioning back to his natural OLB spot after filling in mostly last year at strong safety, where it is hoped that former Tennessee commit D.J. Hunter is beyond the knee injury that wiped out his frosh campaign last fall.

With both of last year’s OLBs having graduated, along with Curry, d.c. Chris Rippon is desperate for playmakers to emerge along the front seven. CUSA sources say to keep an eye on true frosh Devon Johnson, perhaps the top athlete in the recent recruiting haul who could make an impact opposite Arrington at the other OLB spot.

The secondary was not a strength last season, as the Herd ranked 96th in national passing stats. Only one starter, jr. CB Darryl Roberts (right), returns to the mix, and Holliday and Rippon are urging Roberts to take more of a leadership role on the platoon following Curry’s departure.

The situation to watch with the DBs involves true frosh A.J. Leggett, a Miami product rated by many scouting services among the top ten prep corners in the country last fall. After considering Florida State, Miami, and Nebraska, Leggett instead opted for the Herd, but could have eligibility issues in the fall as well as being peripherally involved in the latest Miami recruiting fiasco involving improper contacts by Hurricane boosters. If Leggett gets on the field, however, he could become one of CUSA’s most-impactful newcomers.

As usual, the Herd will have a challenging schedule, with non-conference road trips to West Virginia in the opener for the annual in-state blood bath, and facing another bowl winner from last season later in September when trekking to Purdue. But Marshall doesn’t looked outgunned by any CUSA foe, and unlike a year ago gets six games at home this fall.

Spread-wise, Holliday’s Herd has fallen into a familiar home/road pattern the past two seasons, covering 7 of 11 on the board as host, but dropping 9 of 13 vs. the line as a visitor.

Summary...We can’t speak for most of the Marshall support base, but from our perspective, and from those of various CUSA scouts, Doc Holliday seems to have the Herd program on track despite the fact the offense not being as prolific as the boosters would like. Expect the strike force to upgrade this fall now that exciting soph QB Rakeem Cato has a full season under his belt. The concern involving backup QB A.J. Graham’s dismissal is that there is no experienced cover behind Cato; the Herd’s hopes for this fall could get dashed in a hurry should Cato go down. Still, the CUSA East appears wide open, especially with holder Southern Miss (which lost at Huntington last September, by the way) in apparent rebuild mode and with a new HC, Ellis Johnson, and Marshall should have a puncher’s chance vs. every foe on its schedule. Holliday will hear it from the Herd supporters if he can’t make a repeat bowl appearance this fall, although we suspect he’ll be spared from that sort of criticism in December.


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