HUNTINGTON — Marshall football coach Doc Holliday hopes that offensive line coach Greg Adkins enjoyed the game Tetris as a kid.
With players reporting to preseason camp on Thursday and practice starting on Friday, Adkins’ greatest charge is not trying to find experienced linemen. That part is easy because there’s plenty of experience to go around.
Instead, Adkins has to find the right fit for the wealth of experience he returns.
For any coach, that is a good problem to have as a season starts.
Marshall’s success up front starts in the middle where center Levi Brown is readying for his fourth year leading the offensive line.
Brown, a preseason All-Conference USA selection, was named to the watch lists for the Outland (best interior lineman, offense or defense) and Rimington (top center) trophies while also serving as one of two Marshall representatives at Conference USA Media Day, along with cornerback Chris Jackson.
Coming into the 2019 season, Brown has started in 37 games — all but one — in his Marshall career. For three years straight, Holliday and the coaching staff have trusted Brown with making adjustments on line calls at the line of scrimmage — an aspect that became a benefit to quarterback Isaiah Green in his first year behind center in 2018.
The offense started to find its groove over the last few games of the season when Marshall amassed 450 yards or more in three of the final four games, capped by perhaps the most impressive offensive output of the season — a 38-20 win over South Florida in which the Herd rushed for 282 yards.
Marshall’s rushing attack saw success early in the season with Tyler King leading the way, and then later when Brenden Knox took over at the running back spot. With both healthy and in the same backfield in 2019, the rushing attack will be a point of emphasis for the Herd, and it will be the offensive line’s job to pave the way for success.
In addition to Brown up front, Marshall returns juniors Will Ulmer and Tarik Adams, who bring 26 and 25 games of experience, respectively, back to the lineup. Most of those games so far have come at tackle. Guard Alex Mollette also returns from injury, as does guard Cain Madden, who stepped into the starting role once Mollette went down with a torn ACL.
The biggest addition to the group is Josh Ball, who comes to Marshall from Butler Community College. The 6-foot-8, 350-pound Virginia product started his career at Florida State, where he started as a freshman for the Seminoles.
That’s where Adkins’ ability to fit the pieces together plays in.
Marshall has two returning starting tackles in Ulmer and Adams, plus another in Ball, who has starting experience from his Florida State days and looks every bit the part, as was seen in spring. There is also up-and-coming young talent Dalton Tucker from Kentucky, who has also turned heads in the spring and could provide needed depth.
The likelihood is that Ball and Adams start camp as Marshall’s offensive tackles while Ulmer and Mollette see work at the guard spots with Madden backing up each of them.
Along with Brown in the middle, it creates a solid seven-man rotation with starting experience and versatility. If Ball needs a break, Ulmer can slide outside and Madden to the left guard spot. If anyone gets banged up during the preseason, it provides flexibility. Ball also saw work at left and right tackle in the spring, which provides further possibilities.
The biggest thing for the unit is to mesh well under the offensive scheme of coordinator Tim Cramsey and continue to develop. Another promising aspect is that four of the projected starters — Ball, Ulmer, Mollette and Adams — will be juniors with Brown being the lone senior of the group, meaning the nucleus will have another year together in 2020.
Despite that fact, the focus is on 2019 and the promise that lies ahead.
Marshall finished tied for 26th in sacks allowed — a number that got better as quarterback Isaiah Green’s mental clock improved during the season — and the running game averaged 4.53 yards per rush, which improved drastically in the second half of the year after a poor start to the season.
Those pieces together bode well for an offense that has many of its pieces back intact. Marshall’s offense will only go as far as its line takes it, but it appears the pieces are in place to have the Herd consistently moving forward in 2019.