New Mexico Bowl Football

Marshall safety Nazeeh Johnson (13) brings down Colorado State’s Olabisi Johnson (81) in the New Mexico Bowl.

HUNTINGTON — Earlier this year, Marshall’s Malik Gant surprised everyone by announcing that he would forgo his senior season to jump into the 2019 NFL draft.

With Gant now in the New England Patriots’ training camp, a new leader must emerge among the Thundering Herd back level. And while Gant’s absence leaves the Herd without its second-leading tackler from 2018, the fall-off is not as far as many may think.

Free safety Nazeeh Johnson has followed a similar path as Gant, going from walk-on and virtual unknown to one of the more respected members of the Herd’s defense. Just as Gant made his ascent as a leader in the 2018 season, the same is expected of Johnson as 2019 opens up.

Johnson was productive for the Herd from the free safety spot, registering 59 tackles with five pass breakups and one interception last season while starting all 13 games. While Gant and Johnson were the starting safety tandem in all 13 games last season, Gant’s replacement at strong safety is not without starting experience with the Herd as well.

Brandon Drayton, a 6-2, 200-pound junior from Largo, Florida, started in seven games as a freshman for the Herd and has seen the field considerably in his first two seasons as part of a platoon system within the secondary.

In 2018, Drayton backed up both safety spots, which gives him versatility and experience. He finished 2018 with 51 tackles, including two tackles for loss, with two pass breakups and an interception. Drayton also had a crucial blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown against FIU. Now, it will again be Drayton’s time to prove that he can return to the every-down form that saw him emerge as a starter in 2017.

While Johnson and Drayton give Marshall a pair of bona fide pieces to build on, the Herd must find depth on the back end. One name that is expected to make a bigger impact in 2019 is Kenard King, who came into his own on special teams last season. During the spring, King got a bulk of repetitions as the Herd staff took a long look at him to see what he can do.

Marshall head coach Doc Holliday has discussed adding pieces on the back end of the Herd defense. Although he did not specify exactly what spot, the safety position is one where depth could be utilized.

Marshall has already added former West Virginia University starter Derrek Pitts. It is unknown whether Pitts will be eligible in 2019, though it’s not likely.

Given that Pitts is unlikely to take the field, the unit could go to the transfer portal to snag a safety with experience.

Marshall also signed safety Rashawn Hunter, who is a talented player out of Cape Coral, Florida, who also had offers from Iowa State and Virginia.

As mentioned, Marshall’s starting nucleus should be solid with Johnson and Drayton possessing plenty of experience. Drayton is the third-leading returning tackler on the team behind cornerback Chris Jackson and linebacker Omari Cobb.

However, replacing the playmaking ability of Gant — especially as a run-stopper — is no easy task and Marshall needs to build depth to make the safety production a committee effort.