Aug. 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - A year ago, Marshall began preseason football practice with a big question mark in the kicking game.
Predictions and prospects may change, but some things stay the same.
In August 2012, Coach Doc Holliday was looking for a punter. Walk-on freshman Tyler Williams turned that question mark into an exclamation point.
He became a Freshman All-America pick. Williams, a sophomore on scholarship now averaged a school-record 45.2 yards per kick, with 13 of his 43 punts traveling 50 or more yards, and 16 more placed inside the 20.
Flash forward, and Holliday began his fourth year of preseason drills looking for kickoff depth. The auditions began Monday, when walk-on freshmen Amoreto Curraj and Nick Smith appeared in Herd jerseys for the first time as MU went through split squad workouts.
"We've got to get our kickoff coverage straightened out," Holliday said of a primary special teams goal for this season. "We can't have teams running back the ball on us like they did last year."
So, Doc's prescription is some strong-legged rookies - like Williams proved to be 12 months ago.
In Holliday's third season, the Herd gave up three kick returns for touchdowns - the most of any major college team. Opponents averaged 144.6 return yards per game, second worst nationally. Marshall allowed 17 kickoff runbacks of 30 or more yards - again at the bottom nationally.
The Herd's kickoff coverage scheme is much about directional work, but Holliday and the special teams coordinator, Todd Hartley, said MU needs more distance. A year ago, kickers Justin Haig and Trent Martin combined to average only 56.5 yards per kickoff - in the bottom five in FBS.
Haig was great on placements - perfect on 60 PAT attempts, and 13-of-16 on field goals, including 4-of-4 from 40-45 yards (his longest). But Holliday is hoping to find someone who can boom it deeper.
"We made 83 kickoffs last season and had only six touchbacks, which is not good," said Hartley, who works primarily with offensive special teams while linebackers coach Adam Fuller handles the defensive special teams.
"You can look at it as `Hey, the cover unit is still the cover unit and you've still got to make the tackle,' but if you're playing probability and chances, the more times they bring it out, the more times you're maybe going to get one run up on you pretty good.
"And we were not good at all in that area last season. We drastically have to improve there, drastically."
Curraj comes to Marshall from Leto High in Tampa. A native of Albania, he arrived in the U.S. with his family 13 years ago. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder set a Kornblue Kicking Challenge record earlier this year with a 79-yard kickoff and earned co-Kicking Champion honors in the Kornblue Class of 2013.
Smith, of Jonathan Alder High in Plain City, Ohio, had the best kickoff hang time (3.96 seconds) and had an average kickoff of 62.75 yards in the Ray Guy ProKicker.com camp last year. The 5-10, 155-pounder also was an Ohio Division III all-state first team pick (2011).
The Herd is rolling the dice, hoping it can find another Williams, who was a Ray Guy Award semifinalist last season and is on the watch list for that honor in 2013.
"It's something we're kind of anxious to see," Hartley said of the kicking competition. "You bring in the walk-on guys, and what you're really going off of is a camp or a practice you saw when you were recruiting them, so you kind of hope you brought the right guys in.
"But it's something we have to nail down this camp: Who is going to be our kickoff guy. And if all else fails, it's going to be Justin Haig, and he can be great on location and we'll go from there."
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Smith and Curraj were among about 11 newcomers to the Herd roster in Monday's two workouts. The invited walk-ons list included one big name - former Miami (Fla.) defensive end Ricardo Williams, who will sit out the 2013 season as a transfer and have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Williams, of Homestead, Fla., was offered by the Herd back in 2011 as a three-star (Rivals.com) prospect when he chose Miami. He also had offers from Florida State, Kansas State, West Virginia, Syracuse, Texas Tech, Washington, Stanford and North Carolina. He played in one game for the Hurricanes last season as a redshirt freshman.
The plan is for Williams to go on scholarship in January.
Other new faces in green or white on Monday (all walk-ons):
*Rodney Allen, 5-10, 170, wide receiver from Lincoln High in Dallas, originally signed with Navarro (Junior) College, and will sit out the 2013 Herd season. Caught 36 passes for 386 yards as a high school senior;
*Josh Baisden, 6-3, 280, of Barboursville, a 2012 Class AAA all-state lineman from Cabell Midland High;
*Cody Carter, 5-10, 175, sophomore of Barboursville, wide receiver transfer from the University of Charleston. Carter was Class AAA all-state (utility pick) in 2011 when he rushed 150 times for 1,213 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. As a transfer from an NCAA four-year program, Carter will sit out the 2013 season;
*Raheim Huskey, 6-2, 200, linebacker from Gaffney (S.C.) High; had 109 tackles in senior year and signed with Arizona Western CC before deciding to come to Marshall, so he must sit out the 2013 season;
*Spencer Iacovone, 6-2, 200, quarterback; Marshall baseball signee (1B-DH) who helped Moeller high in Cincinnati to two straight state baseball titles and the 2012 state football title;
*Mark Shaver, 6-0, 185, safety; quarterbacked Huntington High to 17-7 record the last two seasons;
*Jalen Stevenson, 6-1, 200, defensive end from Lakeland (Fla.) High, where he had 25 sacks in his junior season and 49 tackles and 10 sacks as a senior. Was a Garden City (Fla.) CC signee, and must sit out 2013, too;
*Adam Weeks, 6-3, 216, quarterback from Shady Spring High; threw for 2,368 yards and 28 touchdowns as Class AA all-state first team as a junior, before shady was reclassified up to Class AAA.
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It's been a busy offseason for the Herd in many ways. Include Equipment Manager Rich Worner in that group ... as eight players have changed uniform numbers for 2013. So, here's locating those guys without a scorecard:
Cornerback Keith Baxter went from 8 to 5, corner Darryl Roberts from 39 to 7, running back Remi Watson from 35 to 8, nickel back Corey Tindal from 19 to 10, slot receiver Devon "MooMoo" Smith from 33 to 11, running back Essray Taliaferro from 42 to 16, safety Taj Letman from 30 to 17, and wideout DeAndre Reaves from 39 to 19.
Asked if there were such a proliferation of number changes back when he played, Holliday had some fun with it.
"Back then we didn't worry about numbers," the Herd coach said. "I was just happy to get a number. I wasn't very good. I wasn't worried about what number it was.
"I got whatever was left."
Holliday, a 1975 state champion wrestler (170 pounds) at Hurricane High, was No. 56 as a WVU linebacker. He finished with 119 career tackles, 72 of those as a 1978 senior.
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CollegeFootballNews.com has announced its preseason All-Conference USA team, and Marshall placed four players on the all-league first team, led by Offensive Player of the Year Rakeem Cato at quarterback.
The other Herd first-team selections were receiver Tommy Shuler, tight end Gator Hoskins and defensive end Jeremiah Taylor. In the CFN.com top 30 C-USA players rankings, Cato was No. 1, followed among the Herd by Shuler (4), Hoskins (23) and Taylor (25).
Marshall had no second team all-conference picks.
CFN.com writer Rich Cirminiello picked every game for the league's 14 teams, and had the Herd finishing 9-3 overall (losing at Ohio, Virginia Tech and Tulsa) with Marshall's 7-1 league record tying East Carolina for first place in the East.
He picked Marshall to defeat ECU in the final regular-season game for the tiebreaker, and had the Herd facing Rice - his West Division champion pick - in the C-USA title game. He also had the Owls losing to Tulsa, but picked the Golden Hurricane to fall to UTEP and ECU.
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Holliday was asked for an overview as camp started, with the projections for the Herd more promising then they have been in about a decade.
"They understand," he said of the assembled players. "We had our opportunity (Sunday) night to give what we call the State of the Union, tell them what we expect of them. And the expectations for this football team are extremely high.
"And we tell them that's good. That's a positive thing. On the other hand, it means absolutely nothing if we don't come out here every day as a football team and walk off this field a better team ... We're excited about one thing right now, and that's to come out here and become a better team."