HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — There are a couple of countenances the Marshall football team’s offense could take on this season.
It could look like 2012 version, when quarterback Rakeem Cato emerged to help the Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing. It could look like the 2013 edition, which still piled on the yards, but rushed for more per game than any Marshall team since the program’s return to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
So what should everyone expect from Marshall’s offense in 2014? A sly grin crossed the face of offensive lineman Blake Brooks as he leaned in to offer an answer.
“It’s a surprise,” he said.
At first glance, Brooks might be joking. But with the number of decisions left up to Cato in the seconds after the ball is snapped, Brooks might be telling the truth. Marshall’s offense is designed to keep opposing defenses guessing, so its 2014 visage won’t truly be known until the Herd’s season begins Saturday at Miami (Ohio) (3:30 p.m., ESPN3.com). And even then, the image could change from week to week.
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg agrees with Brooks that Marshall’s offense can be a surprise.
“It usually is,” Legg said. “What we’ve tried to do to the best of our ability, we’ve tried to devise this offense in a fashion where we have the best possible play at the time. (T)he offense is designed to try at our ever-loving best to attack the defense at its weakest point. So we might have this play called or that play called, but there usually are three or four combinations that are built in, at least when Cato’s in there.”
That wasn’t always the case with Cato under center. When he was a freshman, it was Legg who did all the play-checking, as the coaches didn’t want to bombard a young signal-caller with too much information. As a sophomore, he was given more responsibility in post-snap reads. As a junior, those reads were Cato’s responsibility at an even higher volume.
As 2014 begins, Legg said he’s not sure there’s a call he makes that doesn’t include a post-snap read for Cato based on how any defender moves to alter the opposition’s formation. Cato said he finally became comfortable making those reads following Marshall’s loss at Purdue.
“Before the game, I was doing a lot of signaling,” he said. “The defense watches film just like us, and they see me signaling and they were adapting to it. After that, I could really focus on the defense and see how they were trying to trick us.”
Legg started tinkering with that type of offense during his first tour of duty with the Herd in 2007. He worked on it a little more as Purdue’s offensive coordinator and more when he became Florida International University’s offensive coordinator. The progress slowed in Cato’s first year, but ramped back up ever since.
The system in the 1990s was quite different, Legg said. Then, a quarterback like Byron Leftwich would come to the line of scrimmage, survey the defensive formation, then check into a play more suitable for that specific defense. The drawback was that it gave the defense time to adjust, too.
“Byron would have three or four plays in his head,” Legg said. “This is what they’re playing, this is what they’re giving up. All we’ve done is put a modern twist to that concept of system, where things are now built together and the decision is being made without having to check.”
Marshall’s offense benefits from the diligent work of its coaching staff, plus the defense for throwing so many formations at the offense that Cato has to keep thinking. That repetition makes the actual games so much easier.
“It kind of gets locked in your head, where if this guy does this, I know what I’m going to do,” Cato said. “I have three reads in my head where, if one doesn’t work, I know where I’m going next. It’s a chess match. If you move, a move’s going to happen. Whatever they’re doing, we just adapt with what we’re doing.”
That doesn’t make for an easy time on defense, senior tackle James Rouse said. Yet as Cato applauds the defense for its work, Rouse does the same for the Marshall offense. That isn’t the only offense Marshall will face dependent on post-snap reads. Working against its own offense for as much as it has gives Marshall’s defense plenty of preparation.
“You just have to stay on your toes,” Rouse said. “You have to try to keep them guessing so they can’t make their checks. You have to stay disciplined and everyone has to be on their keys and make sure they’re getting the person they’re supposed to get.”
Legg reiterated that it’s what the defense presents that will dictate what the offense looks like most of the time. In 2012, opponents tried to rattle a young quarterback by stopping the run, and he responded by scorching them for more than 4,000 yards. They tried to neutralize Cato in 2013 and not only was he named Conference USA’s offensive player of the year, but Herd running back Essray Taliaferro became the first 1,000-yard rusher at Marshall since Darius Marshall in 2009. The way the offense is designed, it isn’t until the defense shows its hand that the offense reveals itself, even to the man calling the plays.
“Until I see how the defense lines up, which only gives me an idea of what might happen, it’s not until the ball snaps until I see how the defense twists and turns and moves that I know for sure where the ball’s going,” Legg said.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.