HUNTINGTON — In his three-plus decades of coaching, Marshall’s Doc Holliday has lived through elevated preseason expectations, whether for his team, individual stars or both.
At West Virginia, all you need to mention is Major Harris. One of the most exciting quarterbacks of the 1980s, he rose to the head table at the Heisman Trophy award ceremony as his team played for a national championship.
After that 1988 season, Harris and the Mountaineers fell a step short of the preseason hype in 1989, going 8-3-1 and losing to Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
During Holliday’s Florida tenure, all you need to mention is Tim Tebow, who was a somewhat reluctant hype machine. He didn’t ask for Johnny Manziel-level attention, but Tebow was already the biggest name in football in his sophomore year of 2007.
By the end of that season, Tebow hoisted the Heisman, Florida won the national championship and everyone in the Gators’ camp breathed a sigh of relief.
“It’s a circus,” Holliday said Monday. “It’s not going to be quite the circus here as it was with Tebow.”
But this is Holliday’s first “circus” as a head coach. Some dynamics are the same as they were seven years ago in Gainesville — big things are expected from Holliday’s Thundering Herd, which is universally picked to win Conference USA at the least.
From a broader, outside-of-Huntington standpoint, the bright spotlight will shine on quarterback Rakeem Cato. He is being pitched as a Heisman candidate, and his story of overcoming his perilous Miami childhood has spread throughout the land.
In fact, Cato is spending his week in Miami as the subject of extended features by ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS Sports Network. Receiver Tommy Shuler and a wide range of friends and family who helped Cato along are being interviewed.
Parallels to Marshall’s 2002 preseason are many. That summer, the Herd was coming off a big bowl win, was being discussed as a Bowl Championship Series-buster and Byron Leftwich had fired his way into the Heisman discussion.
Coach Bob Pruett didn’t shy from those expectations; he embraced them. Holliday is doing the same, though not as brashly.
“Expectations are extremely high, I understand that, I think that’s a good thing,” said Holliday, entering his fifth season at MU. “We talked around here for a long time [after] I took this job that I don’t want to be at a place where expectations aren’t extremely high.
“Well, guess what? They are. And people are talking about us like they haven’t [in recent years]. We’ve embraced that, but we understand that along with high expectations comes responsibility. And we’ve got to make sure we do a great job as a football staff and as a team, that we don’t get complacent in any way, and we go to work every day to get better as a team.”
Holliday doesn’t expect complacency to weigh down a team loaded with juniors and seniors, players he recruited. Only one was recruited by the previous coaching regime — defensive tackle and player-of-the-year candidate James Rouse, who is in his sixth year.
And Holliday certainly doesn’t expect Cato to veer off course, no matter how heavy the hype gets.
“You know, you get guys who are competitive, and Cato’s concerned about one thing, and that’s winning games, as Tebow was and the great ones are,” Holliday said. “He’ll manage it; we’ll help him manage it, and he’ll be fine.”
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Recently at the Conference USA Media Day in Irving, Texas, Cato and Rouse showed up in coats and ties. Among the 14 teams who brought players, that was an exception.
“I didn’t have anything to do with that, to be honest. That was on them,” Holliday said. “I thought it looked pretty nice. I think next year the entire conference will have coat and ties on their players.”
A minute later, he joked, “I was a little upset because they looked better than I did.”
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Holliday discussed the state of the Herd’s running back position, which has lost Kevin Grooms once and for all. After Grooms was arrested for burglary, domestic assault and fleeing on foot, he was dismissed from the program.
That splits up the expected speedy 1-2 punch that entered the program in 2012 after a year sitting out as a nonqualifier. Steward Butler, who has 1,265 career rushing yards, and Remi Watson are the returning scholarship players.
But there shall be reinforcements, beginning with 2013 “props” Tony Pittman and Brandon Byrd. But keep an eye out for others.
“We’ll probably take a look at maybe moving someone else there [from another position] early on,” Holliday said. “You hate to line up and play with true freshmen there. Now, these guys aren’t really true freshmen, they’ve been on campus a year, but we’ve done that in the past [but] I don’t like doing that, so we’ll see where we go.
“[True freshman receiver] Hyleck Foster was a tremendous running back in high school. [Receiver/kick returner Deandre] Reaves has played running back for us, too. We’ll be fine there. I have no worries.”
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As Holliday told of Essray Taliaferro’s surprise rise to No. 1 back last year, he also told of the sudden rise of Alex Bazzie at defensive end. And it turns out Bazzie’s career is far from over.
Bazzie has three sacks in five games for the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions. Two of those came last Friday in a 23-6 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
It wasn’t that long ago that Bazzie was struggling to make the two-deep. The lesson here?
Simple. “There are always surprises in camp,” Holliday said.
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at Twitter.com/dougsmock.