Marshall football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Thundering Herd, best players and season prediction.
It’s title or bust for Marshall in 2016.
The Thundering Herd has won at least 10 games in three straight years, but it has just a single Conference USA crown to show for it. And that’s insufficient for a program that now goes into every season with the bar set at winning championships.
Head coach Doc Holliday has done an outstanding job in Huntington, simultaneously raising expectations and the overall talent level. But absolutely no one is about to kick up his feet and rest on his laurels. On the contrary.
After being trumped by Western Kentucky in 2015, Marshall is hungry to recapture the conference hardware. And once the jockeying for open jobs has ended this summer, the team believes it harbors the requisite skill—on both sides of the ball—to once be the program everyone else is chasing.
The Herd reached double-digit wins last year, despite wholesale changes on offense. A rookie, Chase Litton, supplanted record-setting QB Rakeem Cato. Injuries limited star RB Devon Johnson to only 94 carries. And top blocker Clint Van Horn spent the season on the shelf. Well, Litton is a year older, Hyleck Foster is settling into the feature back role and Van Horn was granted another year of eligibility.
While Marshall may not get back to the level of the peak Cato days this quickly, derailing the offense is going to be a little harder than it was when Litton was wet behind the ears in 2015.
Since bottoming out in 2012, Huntington has been home to Conference USA’s most consistent defense. Kudos to coordinator Chuck Heater and his assistants, who are doing a solid job of attracting the right talent and positioning it for success. The Herd has yielded fewer than 23 points per game in each of the last three seasons, though it’ll take some heavy lifting to maintain that trend.
Marshall has parted with a lot of defensive talent and leadership from a year ago, so backfilling this summer will be crucial. Fortunately, there’s a good base of talent and a swath of newcomers just itching to hit someone and carve out their own role in the D. Plus, if blue-chip recruit Jaquan Yulee, who decommitted from Alabama, qualifies, even better for the competition and overall talent pool.
Holliday has succeeded in piloting Marshall out of the Mark Snyder era, when mediocrity ruled the day. The Herd has been one of the top Group of Five programs over the past three seasons. But after falling just short of a Conference USA title in two of the last three years, the program is pining to get back on top of the league. The foundation is set. Now, Marshall needs to rebuild the two-deep and solve Western Kentucky at the end of the year.
What You Need To Know About The Marshall Offense
The Herd’s offensive production declined in 2015, small surprise considering record-breaking QB Rakeem Cato was supplanted by a true freshman, Chase Litton. But now that Litton is a year older, and maturing, Marshall expects to rise back to the top of the Conference USA scoring charts.
Litton’s biggest assets will be his biggest teammates, tight ends Ryan Yurachek and Emanuel Byrd and an O-line getting a big boost from the return of two-time all-star OT Clint Van Horn. The Herd figures to win the line of scrimmage against most opponents on the 2016 schedule, but the chief beneficiaries of that push remain to be seen.
Hyleck Foster is creeping closer to becoming a soft-handed feature back, though Keion Davis and Tony Pittman will fight for touches in August.
The receiving corps must replace last year’s top two pass-catchers, Davonte Allen and Deandre Reaves. Deon-Tay McManus, Justin Hunt and former hoopster Michael Clark possess imposing size, but they’ll need to put it all together to help Litton with his Year 2 evolution.
Biggest Key To The Marshall Offense
Exploiting the A-gaps. The Herd is bullish on its O-line. And why not since four starters return and next-level RT Clint Van Horn was granted an additional year of eligibility. The team feels it’ll be most effective between the tackles, the A-gaps, barreling behind assertive C Nate Devers and guards Jordan Dowrey and Michael Selby, an all-league center in 2015. Now, the staff needs to decide on a pecking order at running back, with Hyleck Foster, Keion Davis and Tony Pittman all vying for touches.
What You Need To Know About The Marshall Defense
Without a lot of national notoriety, coordinator Chuck Heater continues to do a bang-up job in Huntington. Last year’s Herd team, for instance, led Conference USA in scoring D, allowing just 17.8 points per game. But Heater will be challenged this season since each level of his defense was hit hard by graduation.
In fact, of the seven players who earned at least honorable mention all-league in 2015, only two return. And one of those two, S Tiquan Lang, was arrested in late April.
The other, DE Gary Thompson, will form a bookend with Ryan Bee to give the team one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league.
Elsewhere, Heater will be looking for a swath of former reserves and transfers to rise up and seize the moment. Sophomore Nyquan Harris is ready to become the new leader of the interior of the line after playing well as a redshirt freshman.
The linebackers are an eclectic mix of former transfers, Davon Durant (Arizona State) and Shawn Petty (Maryland), and holdovers, Devontre’a Tyler and Frankie Hernandez, looking to win jobs.
Rodney Allen and the DBs got a big lift this offseason from a pair of newcomers, Virginia Tech import S C.J. Reavis and true freshman Chris Jackson, who solidified spots in the spring.
Biggest Key To The Defense
Money transfers. The Herd defense is dotted with holes, the result of graduations and the early departure of CB Corey Tindal. But coordinator Chuck Heater and the staff remain confident thanks to the return of quality letterwinners and the availability of three talented transfers. LB Davon Durant (Arizona State), S C.J. Reavis (Virginia Tech) and CB Terry Richardson (Michigan) are Group of Five talents looking to revive their careers in Huntington. The hard-hitting Durant, who drew rave reviews and a spate of offers while at Butler (Kans.) Community College, really has Marshall excited.
Marshall Will Be Far Better If …
the offense becomes noticeably more effective in QB Chase Litton’s second season at the helm. Marshall wasn’t quite Marshall in 2015, scoring two touchdowns a game less last fall. And while the decline was completely expected the year after star QB Rakeem Cato graduated, the attack will no longer be steered by a rookie. The Herd is aiming to be more potent and far more efficient after ranking No. 8 in Conference USA in both third-down conversions and red-zone touchdown efficiency.
Best Offensive Player
Senior OT Clint Van Horn. The Thundering Herd will be strongest at the point of attack this season, which is going to make everyone surrounding the O-line better. And no one in Huntington is more accomplished than Van Horn, a two-time all-star who missed almost all of last season to an injury. An ACC-caliber road-grader on the right side of the line, Van Horn will spend the year protecting QB Chase Litton and blowing open holes for the team’s running backs.
Best Defensive Player
Senior DE Gary Thompson. Thompson was the epitome of what Marshall aims to be on defense—fast, frenetic and always trying to create chaos. The career reverse was an instant success in the lineup, leading the team in sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And now that Thompson has added more muscle during the offseason, the team is banking on him playing a larger role in run defense as well.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Sophomore QB Chase Litton. The Herd staff couldn’t be much happier with the development of Litton, who came off the bench early last year and improved as his debut unfolded. And while the best is likely yet to come, Litton still needs to deliver and generally clean up his mechanics when his second season begins in September. Marshall has historically been at its best when the quarterback is dominant, and there’s cautious optimism that Litton is next in line to become the newest prolific Herd passer.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Herd wins its second Conference USA title in the last three years. Marshall expects to win championships. It has the personnel—on the field and the sidelines—and the facilities to win championships. But the program lost to Rice in the 2013 title game and fell to Western Kentucky when the East Division hung in the balance last Nov. 27. After winning 10 games with a rookie quarterback behind center, the Herd is eyeing a return to the Conference USA mountaintop, a very realistic and sensible goal.
Nov. 26 vs. Western Kentucky. Their history may be limited to just two games over the last two seasons, but the Herd and the Toppers are on the verge of becoming the key players in Conference USA’s premier rivalry for the foreseeable future. Western Kentucky has won both matchups, a 67-66 thriller in 2014 that dashed 11-0 Marshall’s quest for a perfect season and last fall’s divisional clincher. And in all likelihood, the winner of this year’s regular-season finale will secure the East Division to punch a ticket to the conference championship game a week later.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points per game: Marshall 31.3 – Opponents 17.8
– Yards per play Marshall 5.4 – Opponents 4.7
– Third-down %: Marshall 40% – Opponents 34%