NCAA Football Preview - Marshall Thundering Herd

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Updated: 8/19/2013 9:32 am

Doc Holliday's squad finished off its in-state series against West Virginia winless as it suffered a lopsided, 35-point setback to the Mountaineers in the season opener. Marshall then evened up its record with a rout of Western Carolina before losing a close one to Ohio at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The Herd secured their first league win with a double-overtime victory at Rice but then lost two in a row, at Purdue and versus Tulsa. Marshall went on the road to capture an easy win at Southern Miss, but continued to alternate losses with wins the rest of the way to arrive at a 5-7 finish.

Holliday's third season as the head coach of the program was a disappointment following his 2011 campaign that ended with a win in the Beef O'Brady Bowl. The former WVU linebacker has a 17-20 record over his three seasons with the program.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Marshall had the top passing attack in the nation last season with an average of 365.1 yards per game through the air. The Herd also ranked in the top 10 in total offense (534.3) and scoring offense (40.9 ppg).

Rakeem Cato has amassed 6,260 yards and 52 touchdowns through the air over his first two seasons as MU's signal caller. The team's fast-paced offense along with his continuous development make reaching Chad Pennington's school record of 13,143 yards a possibility if he can remain healthy. Cato is one of 50 players named to the Walter Camp Award List.

"To be honest, all that concerns me as a player is quarterbacking Marshall," Cato said. "Getting us to be a winning team, a winning program is what it's about. The only thing I can try to control is me and everybody around me doing everything well, everything positive in the direction we want to go."

The Herd's receiving corps will have some fresh faces, but the speedy Tommy Shuler is going to be a key returner after notching a program-record 110 catches for 1,238 yards and six scores as a sophomore in 2012. Red zone threat Gator Hoskins led the squad with 10 touchdown receptions last season, which was his first full year as the starting tight end. Demetrius Evans (284 yards, 32 catches) and Davonte Allen (183 yards, 11 catches) are expected to take on bigger roles as they attempt to replace a pair of receivers with 55-plus catches. Penn State transfer Shawney Kersey could contend for one of the vacated starting spots as well.

MU's rushing attack was up-and-down last season as no one stood out enough to completely take over the full-time duties at halfback. Kevin Grooms gained a team-best 737 yards and scored eight touchdowns on his way to the C-USA Freshman of the Year award. Senior Essray Taliaferro had a very strong finish to the 2012 season after seeing minimal action through the majority of the year. Taliaferro made his first career start in the final game of the season and took full advantage as he amassed 130 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. Four of the five starters on the offensive line will be back to clear rushing lanes and protect Cato.

DEFENSE: Marshall's defense will be a question mark heading into 2013. Last season, it was one of the worst in all of the FBS in points allowed (43.1) and total defense (456.6). The Herd have almost an entirely new defensive staff featuring Chuck Heater as the new coordinator. Heater's coaching career began shortly after his playing career at Michigan ended in 1974 and includes two years of experience as a defensive coordinator at Colorado State. He spent 2004-10 as a positional coach, assistant defensive coordinator and co- defensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer, and was the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Temple from 2011-12.

"You get hit, you hit back, and you've got be able to deal with the bad plays and get past those plays and make some good plays. And I don't know the 'game psyche' of these guys," said Heater on his new squad. "They've done a great job so far of putting themselves in position to go out perform significantly better than they did a year ago, but you don't know about injuries - like happened a year ago - and that can tilt it significantly."

On the field, D.J. Hunter (6-0, 207) will be one of the key players for Marshall. Hunter was a Freshman All-American as an outside linebacker last year, but will utilize his speed and hard-hitting ability as the starting strong safety in the new nickel package scheme. Senior cornerback Monterius Lovett is the only upperclassmen in the secondary that is full of talent without much experience. Prep-school product and former Maryland signee Stefan Houston (6-3, 220) is expected to compete for one of the starting linebacker jobs as a rookie.

Up front, the Herd have both their starting ends back in seniors Jeremiah Taylor (6-4, 259) and Alex Bazzle (6-2, 225). A good season out of Taylor could raise his stock and put him position to join former Marshall defensive ends Albert McClellan and Vinny Curry in the NFL. Senior defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow has ideal size for the position which will help him play a factor in stopping the rush.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Marshall has a reliable place kicker back as junior Justin Haig (5-8, 180) looks to make a name for himself. Haig went 13-for-16 on his field goal attempts and converted all 60 extra-point tries as a sophomore. He also handled the kickoff duties for the Herd, while Tyler Williams (6-0, 188) did the punting. Williams had to battle to win the starting position last year as a freshman, but his 45.2 yards per punt average would have been the ninth best in the FBS had he had enough attempts to qualify.

If the Herd continue to utilize a running back by committee game plan, Grooms is the leading candidate to replace Andre Snipes-Booker as the kick and punt returner.

OUTLOOK: Marshall had a very tough non-conference schedule in 2012 which ultimately kept it out of the postseason. This year's slate is much more manageable as WVU and Purdue are no longer on the docket. Additionally, the C-USA will be a less competitive league after losing several teams to the newly founded American Athletic Conference.

The Herd start out their season with Miami-Ohio and Gardner-Webb at home before hitting the road to play Ohio in Athens and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. They will then begin their C-USA season at home against one of the new additions, Texas-San Antonio, before a road trip against two former Sun Belt programs in FAU and Middle Tennessee. Marshall will then come back to Huntington to host Southern Miss and UAB prior to its final road trip, which includes stops at Tulsa and FIU. The Herd will have a chance at revenge in their regular-season finale as the East Carolina Pirates visit Joan C. Edwards Stadium for a rematch of last season's thriller.

It is hard to imagine Marshall not returning to the bowl season considering how much of its elite offense is back. The defensive unit has a long way to go, but it seems to be heading in the right direction under its new coordinator. The Herd could find itself in the C-USA Championship game for the first time in history if all goes as planned for Holliday's program.

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