BOGACZYK: Roster Changes, Expectations Don’t, Holliday Says
The Word on the Herd-Aug. 4, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The 2015 season will be Marshall’s 19th since the Thundering Herd’s return to major college football in 1997.
Only once in that span – actually only once in a Herd major-college history that also includes 1954-82 -- has Marshall had three consecutive seasons with double-digit victories.
That was right off the bat in the return from Division I-AA greatness, when the 1997-99 Mid-American Conference champions went 10-3, 12-1 and 13-0.
The Herd opens August camp Friday, pointed toward Coach Doc Holliday’s sixth season on the sidelines, and the 2013-15 teams have a chance to join those aforementioned Chad Pennington-quarterbacked clubs with three straight seasons of 10 or more victories.
Marshall will have to do it, however, without a star quarterback, slot receiver and center, and without six starters from a 2014 defense that included star cornerback Darryl Roberts, who has impressed early as a New England Patriots’ rookie.
Ten, 11 or 12 wins isn’t the Herd goal, however. The number would be a byproduct of where Marshall wants to go.
The goal is a second Conference USA title in a row, and unlike the unanimous preseason divisional champion pick of a year ago that fulfilled its selection, the 2015 Herd starts as the second-place choice behind high-scoring Western Kentucky in the C-USA East Division.
Holliday and his hitmen aren’t conceding anything to the Hilltoppers, the only team to unseat the Herd – 67-66, overtime -- in a season in which Marshall finished No. 22/23 in the final polls.
“They understand the expectations and standards are really high and they embrace that,” Holliday said Tuesday at his pre-camp news conference at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. “With that comes responsibility for that every day … and that has to continue for us to go where we want to go.
After 10-4 and 13-1 seasons capped by impressive bowl victories, the Herd coach was asked about his program fielding teams that have gone from the hunter to the hunted.
“I’m not sure it’s any different than where we were a year ago,” Holliday said. “Expectations were extremely high a year ago and I thought our team embraced that. I’ll tell our guys when they get back in here Thursday that I never walked off that field one time last year where I felt we didn’t have a great practice.
“That’s what great teams do, show up every day, go to work … It’s important for these guys to understand what got ‘em there. It’s hard work, go to work every day, outwork people. That’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had the last couple of years.”
The Herd opens the season Sunday, Sept. 6 against Purdue – the first visit to Huntington by a Big Ten Conference football team. And as this regular season winds down, the Herd will find itself playing three of its final four games on the road – closing at WKU on Thanksgiving Friday -- in a stretch interrupted by the season’s only open date.
Marshall has plenty of talent to get where it wants to go. While some in Thundering Herd Nation wanted a 13-1 team of a year ago to pile up scores in hopes of impressing the College Football Playoff committee, Holliday and his staff chose instead to create more depth with the future in mind.
As the late Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach George Allen used to say, “The future is now.”
Marshall has boasted one of the top FBS offenses in recent seasons, but quarterback Rakeem Cato, center Chris Jasperse and slot receiver Tommy Shuler – record-setters all -- are gone. Still, the Herd has plenty of talent in the bid to defend its first C-USA crown.
On offense there are All-C-USA first team picks in running back Devon Johnson and right tackle Clint Van Horn, and James Madison transfer and new quarterback starter Michael Birdsong is strong-armed and strong, period, at 240 pounds. A group of pass catchers that combined for some of the top freshman numbers in the FBS are back as sophomores, too.
On defense, linebacker D.J. Hunter and nose man Jarquez Samuel were Preseason All-C-USA picks. Weakside linebacker Evan McKelvey is back – again – from injury. The secondary has five returning veterans in safeties Taj Letman, AJ Leggett and Tiquan Lang, and corners Corey Tindal and Keith Baxter.
The special teams are just that – special – led by all-conference punter Tyler Williams and snapper Matt Cincotta and kick returner Deandre Reaves, a Phil Steele All-America preseason third team pick. During the summer in one interview, Holliday was asked if he thought his Herd program had finally reached the point where it was reloading rather than rebuilding. His response was that he felt the Herd had reached that “reloading” juncture in 2013.
And when it was pointed out the defense lost Roberts, three-fourths of the starters up front – including star tackle James Rouse -- and the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Neville Hewitt from 2014, the coach’s answer was: “We played a lot of people on defense last season … We’ll be fine.”
Holliday is right. Returnees on that side of the ball played 7,318 defensive snaps in 2014 – an average of 523 per game. That group didn’t include middle linebacker Shawn Petty and end Blake Keller, who sat out the season as FBS transfers from Maryland and UCF, respectively.
“I think we’ve got enough players there that we’ll be able to replace ‘Swagg’ (Roberts), Rouse and Neville on defense,” holliday said Tuesday. “It’s like you had the same production from those three as you did Cato, Jasperse and Shuler. So, you’ve got kind of the same situation on defense you have on offense.
“That being said, we’ve got some good young players … It’s always fun as a college coach to watch what happens when people actually get their opportunity. Kids respond in different ways, and I expect some of those young secondary guys to step up and become good players for us and I think they will.” The Herd coach often says that one thing he has enjoyed most in his three decades-plus as a college football coach is the personnel changing like the autumn colors that also mark the season.
This season, Marshall will have significant changes, but the Herd coach said one thing can’t change is Marshall wants to get where it has and where those late 1990s teams reached.
“It was a great year,” Holliday said of 2014, when the success brought his career record to 40-25. “Our expectations and our standards are extremely high at Marshall and a year ago we reached those standards and expectations.
“That was a great thing. But we’re starting a new year here and expectations and standards don't change … so we have to make sure that we don't.”
Holliday, 58, is beginning his fifth decade in college football, a consecutive-years run that began when he was a freshman linebacker on West Virginia’s 1975 Peach Bowl team.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Holliday, who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at WVU in 1979. “Here we are again, going back at it. But I’m excited, and I know our players are excited.”