CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- SO I POSED the question to Bill Legg, Marshall's offensive coordinator and mad scientist: With your personnel becoming more versatile, will you attach a few more pages to your voluminous playbook? Already done, he said Saturday after Marshall's scrimmage, in which two men named Devon made a lasting impression. The smaller Devon - call him Duh-VON or just "Moo Moo" Smith - proved himself ready for the slot receiver spot, ready to add substantially to his 56 career catches for 795 yards he compiled in three seasons at Penn State. He replaced the still-healing Tommy Shuler, and proved he could do that, or complement the 110-reception star in certain formations. Smith proved that at 5-foot-7, he should be able to stand up to tackling - I mean, who's going to make full contact with this slippery, rocket-fast dude? "He had a broken foot and we ended up redshirting him [last year]," Legg said. "He still wasn't 100 percent healthy in the spring, he was out here limping around but he made some plays, showed some burst and I was like, 'Hmm. We might have something here.' "And now you're seeing the culmination of what he's able to do when given a chance. And it's wonderful and gives us another bullet in our chambers." The larger Devon - call him DEH-vin Johnson or simply "sir" - played fullback in the few plays the Herd used one last year, but is broadening his horizons as well as he's broadening his shoulders. At 6-1, 240 pounds, the sophomore is becoming a near-unstoppable combination of athleticism and brute force. Now he's getting comfortable with Legg's system, lining up tight, split out, in the backfield and every place else. "Our plan - and unfortunately it got derailed when he had shoulder surgery in the spring - was to cross-train him and Gator [top tight end Hoskins], so that Gator would learn the fullback stuff and Devon would learn all the stuff that Gator already knew. And if we could do that, than it would open up our offense and create even more facets with what we're doing with minimal change to our kids. "We're very, very pleased with both of them, and Devon had a really good day." Saturday, Johnson he showed how entertaining "yards after catch" can be. First, he dragged about five tacklers to stretch a reception to 45 yards; some time later, he stiff-armed a defender to the turf, helmet-first. Hard. And that defender was D.J. Hunter, probably the Herd's best open-field tackler. So how, I ask, can you keep Devon and Devon off the field this fall? Smith is the No. 2 slot, which (conventionally) would allow him to play in four-receiver and empty sets; Johnson was getting more reps because backup tight end Eric Frohnapfel was watching in a red jersey. Patience, everyone. Marshall ran 1,087 scrimmage plays in 12 games, a nation-leading average of 90.1. Even if that average scales back to 84 plays, there will be 1,008 snaps over 12 games, 1,092 over 13 and 1,176 over 14, should MU play for the Conference USA championship. That's plenty enough for Legg to get even more creative than he was last year. "You never know what can happen around here," Legg said. "You can put a couple of running backs in the backfield, you can put a couple of extra receivers on the field. That's the nice thing we have right now is the ability to create change, which puts more stress and more preparation time for our opponents." In other words, that robs defensive coordinators of their precious sleep. Tacklers, too.
There has been more than a little discussion about Marshall's one bad-luck spot on the schedule, in which it goes to defending champion Tulsa for a Thursday night game Nov. 14 - five days after a should-win home game against Alabama-Birmingham.
So why, sayeth a sizable chunk of the green-clads, should their team be forced to play the same C-USA West Division squad for the third straight year? A fair question.
When the membership changed - four teams out, six teams in - the nice, neat rotation that was followed for eight years had to go. With two seven-team divisions, teams now had six intradivsional games and two across division lines - Marshall drew Texas-San Antonio (voted last by league coaches) and Tulsa, the prohibitive favorite.
Fair enough, but why would the Herd get a trip to Chapman Stadium on short rest?
Hold the phone, say the Tulsa fans. If you look at that schedule, the Golden Hurricane will be playing on a short week, and it won't be against UAB - rather, a Nov. 9 trip to East Carolina, the near-consensus East favorite. Nine days after the MU game, the Golden Hurricane is going to Louisiana Tech for another potential scorefest.
From this always-speculative preseason vantage point, Marshall doesn't have a similar three-week stretch. (Part of why my boss picked the Herd an almost insane 10-2.)
So, you ask, how in this one-year-only format do we have a Tulsa-ECU-Marshall golden triangle? The good folks in the league office may say it's a random draw, but I'm thinking it's TV-driven all the way.
Take a look: Tulsa-ECU is a "flex" game, airing at a time to be announced on Fox Sports Net or Fox Sports 1. Tulsa-MU is set for Fox Sports 1. Fox Sports 1 just hit the cable waves, and needs a few good college games.
So Herd fans, your team is wanted by the TV folks, something the program hasn't often enjoyed in the past few years. All complaints about the Tulsa game are hereby dismissed.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.