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BOGACZYK: Birdsong Exits Spring as Herd's No. 1

April 27, 2015



            HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It was the overarching question -- and most-anticipated decision -- of Marshall spring football.

            Who's the Thundering Herd's new No. 1 quarterback?

            Anyone who was paying attention the last two weeks of spring practice realized who likely was at the top of the pecking order. It just took some confirmation from the top.

            "Michael Birdsong is our No. 1 quarterback," Herd Coach Doc Holliday said Monday. "Now, it's up to him to keep the job through the summer conditioning and August camp, but he's shown us he can do what we want and what we need."

            Birdsong, a junior transfer from James Madison, stepped up to run with the "ones" in spring drills. The 6-foot-5, 242-pounder from Matoaca, Va., is following the latest Herd QB legend. Rakeem Cato was a four-year starter who threw for a Marshall career records of 14,079 yards and 131 touchdowns.



            Birdsong sat out the 2014 season at Marshall under NCAA transfer rules, and he won the Herd's Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year honor for the "looks" he gave Marshall throughout practices last season.

            Holliday referenced his former star quarterback in discussing the 21-year-old Birdsong, who started 14 games at JMU. He was the Dukes' starter for the 2013 season, as a sophomore.

            "The most important thing at the quarterback position is the intangibles," Holliday said. "Birdsong brings that to the table. He's extremely tough; he's got great leadership skills; his expectations and standards are set very high.

            "He'll do a great job making sure everybody lives up to his standards. And that's what great leaders, great quarterbacks do. Intangibles at that position are so important, and we think he has those."

            Holliday also pointed out that Birdsong also is a change from Cato, who owns the NCAA major college record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and helped the Herd to three bowl wins and a 35-18 record in four years.

            "Birdsong is different than Cato (6-0, 176), because of his height, and his size and his physical presence. Cato could beat people with his feet. His escapability was there; he always had his eyes down the field. I think Birdsong is very similar.

            "Cato had that `it' factor. Cato had a knack about him to make plays when things went bad, and we're hoping Birdsong can do the same thing."

            Holliday said redshirt junior Gunnar Holcombe -- No. 2 on the depth chart to Cato last season -- and true freshman Chase Litton -- are in the picture behind Birdsong.

            "Gunnar and Chase are both talented guys who will continue to compete for the job." Holliday said. "When we get into the fall, in August camp, we expect them to come back and compete hard for the job, just as they have all spring."

            Bill Legg, the Herd's veteran offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said Monday that the wide-open spring ball quarterback competition was intriguing.

            "When we went into spring with the specter of having to replace a guy who started the last four years and did all things," Legg said. "I told them that I wasn't looking for the next Rakeem Cato. I was looking for the next guy to drive the bus and get 10 other guys (on offense) to follow on a consistent basis.

            "I told them I wasn't looking for someone to play the same as Cato. If they didn't that was OK, but the production had to be the same. That's where we were; we weren't going back.

            "At the start, you could tell Mike and Chase had not taken the same reps as Gunnar, but as the spring went along, they kind of caught Gunnar at the midpoint and then it kind of became a true race. It was closely, tightly bunched until the end, but we needed to make a call, and it's Mike."

            The red-haired Birdsong passed for 2,278 yards and 22 touchdowns with 15 interceptions as James Madison went 6-6 in 2013. He rushed for another 310 yards. In his two seasons at JMU, he had 3,206 yards passing (268-of-453) with 26 TDs and 16 interceptions, and ran for 489 yards on 155 carries.

            Legg said Birdsong was impressive under fire and displayed a resiliency and increased comfort level in his game.

            "The thing that impressed me was Mike's capacity to learn, and then his capacity to fix errors," the Herd coordinator said. "If he'd make a mistake, he'd come back and fix that mistake the next time, and transition it into a positive result. That made a difference."

            Legg said Marshall will go two weeks into August camp before a firm decision on a quarterback starter is made for the Sept. 6 opener against Purdue at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

            "There's still work to be done," he said. "I still think there and things we can do to improve. We're in a very unique situation here in that we have a lot of talent at the position, and it's still a tightly bunched pack.   

            "They're going to keep competing, and we'll go through the first two weeks of (August) camp and the scrimmages. Then we'll have to have a final, final decision. But right now, Mike is in the lead because of his consistency."