CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The buzz that the Marshall football team developed at the end of last season, following a 10-win finish and victory over Maryland in the Military Bowl, hasn’t dissipated. If anything, it’s grown.
CBSSports.com and the National Football Post predicted the Thundering Herd to reach the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Conference USA’s opportunity for one of their teams to play a power conference opponent in the postseason. Athlon Magazine not only predicted the Herd to finish the regular season undefeated and beat North Texas in the conference title game, but also reach the Peach Bowl.
“It motivates us a lot,” Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said, “but no game is won on paper.”
Cato, center Chris Jasperse and Herd coach Doc Holliday spoke at a luncheon Thursday at the Department of Environmental Protection office in Kanawha City. They embraced the expectations outsiders had of their team and said the work to meet those expectations hasn’t stopped since the spring season ended.
“The leadership on this football team has been tremendous, and the message that they’ve gotten from us consistently is that you don’t stay the same, you either get better or you get worse,” Holliday said. “The expectations that surround this football team right now are extremely high, but that’s great. But they also understand that with expectations comes responsibility. It’s a responsibility to make sure we’re the most prepared team in our conference.”
Cato and Jasperse said players are working out both individually and in groups, both during their scheduled workout times and on their own. Cato said he’s spent a lot of time in the film room, poring over bad plays and good plays, looking for areas to improve. Even for a player who was the 2012 C-USA MVP and the 2013 conference offensive player of the year, he said there’s still room to grow.
“Right now, me and Coach Legg have talked about my deep ball,” he said. “When I throw the ball on a rope more, I’m more successful at it, rather than just throwing the ball up in the air.”
Jasperse said the offensive line has become very familiar with jumping rope, hoping that will improve their footwork for the fall and allow them to better protect Cato. Marshall was tied with eight other teams last year for 65th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 26 sacks allowed.
The team knows where others expect it to finish in 2014, Jasperse said. Rather than duck they challenge, the players are meeting it head-on.
“If people say that, you have to work for it,” the Rimington Award watch list member said. “If you want to be the best, you have to play like the best. That’s what we’ve been saying the last couple of days and these last three workouts have been some of the best we’ve ever had here.”
The Herd, as well as every other college football team, gets a new luxury in June. The NCAA will allow coaches access to players during the summer – eight hours a week for eight weeks. Holliday said there won’t be much change to the team’s summer workouts, but he and the rest of the staff relish the opportunity to be more closely involved with the players during the offseason.
Even when the coaches aren’t there, Holliday said he’s not worried about his players’ motivation, which he attributes to a large and deep leadership base.
“Last year, this time, I couldn’t put my finger on more than three or four guys that I thought would be great leaders and great captains,” he said, “and by the end of the year, we had about 19 of them.”
He credits that to his new system of picking captains from last year, choosing a new group before each game, rather than four of five players for the entire season. He said Thursday that he’ll continue that system in 2014.
Both Cato and Jasperse can tell what the success of 2013 has meant to the preparation of 2014. Players who hadn’t before stayed after planned workouts for extra reps now are putting in that additional work. And, often, they find that, when they call teammates to train on their own time, those teammates already have beaten them to the punch.
“The other day, I was calling receivers to come throw the ball with me,” Cato said. “I’m calling Craig Wilkins while I’m standing at the pool, and he’s over there working out in the sand. I’m wondering why he’s not answering his phone, and he’s over there working out by himself. That’s a plus. When you see signs like that, that’s a plus for our team getting better and better.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.