HUNTINGTON — With the season opener at Miami (Ohio) two weeks away, Marshall fans get their last chance to see their team in the preseason tonight, with a few position battles on full display.
The Thundering Herd conducts its first officiated scrimmage at 7 p.m. at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The scrimmage is open only to members of the Big Green Scholarship Foundation, those who want to sign up for the Big Green and MU students with a valid ID card.
With Conference USA officials working, a number of players will get their first taste of tackle-to-the-ground college football. It will be a big test for newcomers such as tight end John Yurachek and running back Tony Pittman, just to name a few.
“I see some young kids out here really making some plays, but I want to get the coaches off the field, let them see if they can make plays on their own, which I think they can, and just let them go play,” said MU coach Doc Holliday.
There are a few position battles hanging in the balance, such as the outside receivers. Coaches may determine if the Davonte Allen/Angelo Jean-Louis combination is the top option, or if another round of mix-and-match is needed.
But the No. 2 quarterback position stands to be front and center. Gunnar Holcombe and Cole Garvin have been battling throw-for-throw, with mixed success.
“I don’t think, I know we’ll have a decision by Monday,” said Holliday. “I think we have a pretty good idea, but we’ll let the scrimmage play out, we’ll be back here on Monday, make a decision and get him ready to go play, whoever it is.”
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And there shall be field goals, in more of a live setting. Justin Haig and Nick Smith will be called upon to kick at the end of scripted drives.
The way those two have been matching successful attempts, every kick matters. A week ago, they traded 49-yarders at one point, which meant Haig has bumped up his range a little. That’s not an issue with Smith, but he is the challenger.
Haig’s 2-of-3 mark in game-winning field goals could provide the ultimate edge. The race likely will go to game week.
“We chart everything,” said Todd Hartley, the tight ends coach who is overseeing the field-goal unit. “We chart miss, make, yard line, time, everything. Hold, snap, everything. It’s very detailed, but they’re competing.
“Nick’s pushing Haig, Haig’s pushing Nick, and we’re in a good situation where we’ve got two kickers like that in our program.”
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Based on Friday morning’s workout, the defense may enjoy an advantage tonight. The Herd still was without right tackle Clint Van Horn and both No. 1 guards, Blake Brooks and Michael Selby. Big Sandley Jean-Felix has been working in place of Van Horn, and may be the most entertaining lineman.
Tom Collins and Trevor Mendelson have been the No. 1 guards.
Remi Watson and Brandon Byrd have returned to the MU backfield, possibly affording a look at all five top runners. Byrd returned a week after suffering a concussion on a heavy hit by linebacker Cortez Carter.
Cornerback Darryl Roberts watched Friday morning and linebacker Evan McKelvey has watched the last several practices. Don’t expect to see much of James Rouse, who is healthy and has been fully participating in practice.
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The Herd picked up another member Friday, 6-foot, 211-pound linebacker Zach Higginbotham from Loveland, Ohio. The Cincinnati Country Day graduate walked on at the University of Cincinnati, redshirting for the Bearcats last season.
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And finally, the last piece of preseason publication hype may be in the books, as USA Today slotted Marshall 20th in its 1-through-128 countdown. The Herd is the top-ranked team among the “Group of 5” conferences, five spots ahead of Boise State.
This line sums up Paul Myerberg’s detailed analysis: “Marshall has Conference USA’s best offense and its best defense, with superb athleticism along the starting lineup and, by leaps and bounds, the finest depth of Doc Holliday’s tenure.
“Add this talent to the smoothest schedule imaginable and you have the expectations of not just a conference title — one year overdue -- but the program’s best team of its FBS existence.”
A strong statement, to be sure. More than ever, Holliday must keep his troops focused and forgetting about the hype.
“I’d be lying if I said the kids don’t know it. Everybody’s walking around telling them how good they are,” Holliday said. “They’ve done a good job embracing it, but understanding they’ve got to do their job and get better. Expectations are going to go out the window pretty quick if you don’t prepare every day and make sure you’re the best team.”
Reach Doug Smock at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5130 or follow @DougSmock on Twitter.