CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- LET'S GET this out of the way for all the cynics: The combined record of the four teams Marshall has defeated is 8-19, with one fired coach. (Yes, Don Treadwell was evicted from the Cradle of Coaches. Tough times at Miami of O.)The two teams who have beaten the Thundering Herd are a combined 10-3. The combined record of the six teams left on MU's schedule is 12-24.Do with that what you will. I don't care.The real point here is that Marshall football has pedaled past the halfway point, and it's been one fun journey - perhaps the most fun since 2002. This team probably should be 5-1, but still has all its goals ahead. Just wish the Herd had another shot at Central Florida, right?(Louisville, how could you?)Clearly, the talent has taken a jump in Huntington. Preview magazine author Phil Steele rolled out his Midseason All-C-USA Team, and it listed seven Herd players on the first unit. Two of them are on defense, even - defensive end Alex Bazzie and pounding linebacker Jermaine Holmes.The others are receiver Tommy Shuler, tight end Gator Hoskins, center Chris Jasperse and tackle Gage Niemeyer. Devon Smith rates first-team mention as a punt returner and second-team as a receiver, which is appropriate.Quarterback Rakeem Cato is second team behind East Carolina's Shane Carden. Third-teamers are defensive tackle James Rouse, linebacker Neville Hewitt and defensive back Darryl Roberts.I'd argue Rouse and Roberts should go up a rung, but you get the point. This team has cultivated star power on both sides of the ball.The defense continues to be the No. 1 story of this Marshall season. Somehow, some way, the Herd is 10th in the nation in total defense, 20th in scoring defense, 22nd in rushing defense and eighth in pass defense (efficiency rating). And remember, that includes a game against Virginia Tech, which usually runs for 5,000 yards against the Herd.The transformation is shocking. Chuck Heater deserves a heap of credit, but he has help.Preseason prognosticators could not account for the infusion of new, or sort-of-new, talent. To review, you had Rouse, Roberts and Evan McKelvey returning from the injury shelf - two potential team MVPs and a top reserve.The other newcomers are Gary Thompson and Arnold Blackmon at end, stud Hewitt and Stefan Houston at linebacker, and A.J. Leggett and Taj Letman among the safeties. You could build a pretty good defense around those guys, couldn't you?Throw in other factors, such as D.J. Hunter's move back to strong safety - it says here that Hunter will have a very good second half as he gets more comfortable. Holmes, freed from a too-complex scheme, has become known as "the Freak." Could anybody have guessed how far defensive Ra'Shawde Myers has come?So we've just rattled off 13 names on that side. Throw in the new coordinator as a 14th. We thought Marshall's defense would improve - it had to - but not this much this quickly.Other storylines at the halfway pole:
Cato's mild reduction in stats are handing the league MVP trophy to Carden - and few in these parts care. If Cato pulls another late rally or two when the stakes get higher, nobody will care. Carden's on pace to throw for 4,000 yards and then some; Cato won't equal the 4,201 of 2012, even with 14 games. Again, big whoop. Offensive line is unexpectedly thinned out. The departures of Jordan Jeffries and Josh Lovell leave seven in the rotation. On Aug. 1, nobody could have guessed the value of true freshman Michael Selby.
The issue looms: One assumes position coach Alex Mirabal is trying to groom somebody to join the group, or play in case of disaster. Blake Brooks? Trevor Mendelson? Does Cam Dees break out of redshirt-dom and make his debut? Are we seeing the decline, even demise, of Steward Butler? Since his cataclysmic kickoff fumble at Ohio, he has 11 carries for 29 yards and a touchdown, with a long run of 7 yards and a Doc Holliday-mandated missed plane trip. Smith is one bad, bad little dude. We knew this day was coming, but didn't know when. His punt return TD and sneaky 35-yard catch at Florida Atlantic may be just the beginning.By the way, the move of Smith to "X" is the personnel decision of the year thus far. I know some of you are choking on your Wheaties and Spam about now, but it is.I'd love to see Smith inside, too, but he'd be wasted as a No. 2 slot. (What, you think he takes some of Shuler's snaps?) MU doesn't run a ton of four-wide and when it does, that often involves tight end Hoskins splitting out.So unless Davonte Allen shows dependability, Smith is your top "X," all 5-not-many of him. It's all about putting your best 11 on the field, and right now that's the best move.(Hey to Shawney Kersey, wherever you are.) Marshall is leading C-USA's East Division. East Carolina and Tulsa already have a loss. Tulane and Rice are atop the West Division, and Marshall plays neither. Tulsa might not be all that, it seems. Middle Tennessee's offensive line is three-parts muscle, two-parts duct tape. The Herd found a kickoff guy who can reach the end zone. The indoor practice building's frame is filling out. Are the pigskin stars aligning in Huntington?Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.