HUNTINGTON — Marshall has one thing on its mind as the 2019 season gets underway: a Conference USA Championship.
Considering the expectations and number of returnees, anything less than such will be a disappointment in Huntington.
Marshall was selected as the East Division favorite in the preseason media poll and coach Doc Holliday said now the onus is on his team to rise and meet the expectations against a challenging non-conference schedule and the in-conference opposition.
“Our kids understand that along with those expectations comes responsibility to go to work every day,” Holliday said.
The non-conference portion of the schedule provides plenty of challenges for the Thundering Herd.
Following the Aug. 31 opener against VMI, Marshall takes on three Group of Five opponents who, like the Herd, are at the top of their respective conferences. The Herd travels to Mountain West favorite Boise State on Sept. 6 before returning to Huntington to host Mid-American Conference favorite Ohio on Sept. 14 and American Athletic Conference contender Cincinnati on Sept. 28.
“As far as Group of Five teams are concerned, those are three we have to compete with [for New Year’s Six berth] and we’re playing all three of them,” Holliday said.
Marshall returns the bulk of its offensive starting unit from the 2018 season with eight starters back. The Herd offensive front returns four of five starters from the 2018 team, but adds junior college signee Josh Ball, who started 12 games as a freshman at Florida State. Center Levi Brown heads into his fourth year as a starter and leads a group that Holliday said will be the strength of the team.
The running game is expected to be strong with Tyler King back healthy after missing the final six games of 2018 due to injury. Brenden Knox, who emerged in King’s absence, is also back, giving Marshall a talented 1-2 punch of speed and power in the backfield. King finished the year with 655 yards and four scores while Knox added 578 yards and four scores in only five games at running back.
Quarterback Isaiah Green returns for his second year as a starter in offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey’s system and said he’s hoping to build on a successful freshman campaign.
“My confidence level has always been high, but I do feel like I improved from the beginning of the year to the end,” Green said.
Green does have to find new receivers as his go-to targets after the graduation of Tyre Brady and Marcel Williams, but Obi Obialo – whom Green found a connection with late in the season – returns after a year in which he caught 42 passes for 505 yards. Kentucky graduate transfer Tavin Richardson is new to the mix, but has been impressive in the preseason while young players such as Talik Keaton and Corey Gammage have emerged also.
The production lost by Brady and Williams’ exit may be absorbed by a tight end room that Holliday feels is as talented as any he’s had since arriving in Huntington. Cramsey said the team has three potential starter caliber tight ends in Armani Levias, Xavier Gaines and Devin Miller.
“You look at that position and normally, you are looking to have one solid guy that you consistently target,” Cramsey said. “We have three guys – all of which are as good as any in Conference USA. That’s a blessing.”
Defensively, Marshall has a new coordinator in Brad Lambert and many new faces in its front seven, but Holliday feels there won’t be a sharp letdown from 2018’s team that finished in the top-26 nationally and was a top-10 unit against the run.
Holliday said the defensive line is deep at all positions, which means the players can continue to rotate to stay fresh for the stretch run of games. Channing Hames leads the returnees along the front while Marquis Couch also returns. The Herd also has FIU graduate transfer Fermin Silva and Darius Hodge as potential playmakers.
Linebacker is Marshall’s biggest question mark with only Omari Cobb having starting experience at the spot. Holliday did say he’s pleased with the growth of Jaquan Yulee, who is joined at the spot by former high school teammate Tavante Beckett.
Marshall’s secondary brings lots of experience with it, most notably Chris Jackson, who is going into his fourth year as a starting cornerback. Safety Nazeeh Johnson also returns after starting 13 games last season.
Holliday’s emphasis on special teams resulted in several scores last season and the wealth of returnees to the coverage and return units should again aid the Herd. Marshall returns everyone in the mechanics of the kicking game, including All-Conference USA longsnapper Matthew Beardall, holder Jackson White and kicker Justin Rohrwasser. Punter Robert LeFevre also returns.