By JIM ELLIOTT
HUNTINGTON - The last time Marshall had a home-grown receiver that was stealing the bulk of the preseason headlines, things worked out pretty well.
The Herd have another in Aaron Dobson, a 6-foot-3, 204-pound glue-hander who posted 49 receptions for 668 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 2011. Included in that was a one-handed, backhand reception for a touchdown against ECU that not only helped the Herd to a bowl-berth clinching victory, but also went viral, receiving more than 1.7 million hits on YouTube. It is better known in Huntington as ''The Catch.''
''He's got great potential,'' Marshall coach Doc Holliday said of Dobson. ''One thing that we talked about was making the same jump from your junior year to your senior year that you did from your sophomore to your junior year.''
Dobson, a South Charleston product, figures to be one of the leaders of a relatively young team. The senior class, which was brought in by former coach Mark Snyder, is just eight deep, trailing only Indiana's seven for the smallest senior class in the FBS.
But, Holliday says, there is more competition for spots than there has been, even as 13 starters return (eight on offense, five on defense).
Sept. 1: at West Virginia12 p.m.
Sept. 8: Western Carolina7 p.m.
Sept. 15: Ohio6:30 p.m.
Sept. 22: at Rice3:30 p.m.
Sept. 29: at PurdueTBA
Oct. 6: Tulsa3:30 p.m.
Oct. 20: at Southern Miss7 p.m.
Oct. 27: UCF8 p.m.
Nov. 3: Memphis2 p.m.
Nov. 10: at UAB4:30 p.m.
Nov. 17: Houston12 p.m.
Nov. 23: at East Carolina2 p.m.
Win 7, Lose 5
''We've gotten to the point where there's going to be a lot of competition,'' Holliday said. ''There was zero my first year (2010). This is the first time since I've been here that I think there's going to be competition at just about every position, which has to be a good thing.''
Marshall, which opens against West Virginia on Sept. 1 in Morgantown in the finale of a seven-year series, was 7-6 last season. The Herd won their last three games, including a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl victory against FIU.
The quarterback is Rakeem Cato, a sophomore who started 9 of 13 games last season and threw for 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The running game, led by Tron Martinez (160 carries, 649 yards, three touchdowns) and Travon Van (143 carries, 551 yards, three touchdowns) is a good one, and a good example of the position battles going on.
Newcomers Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms join the mix with Martin Ward and Essray Taliaferro.
They'll have to replace two starters on the offensive line - left tackle Ryan Tillman and right tackle C.J. Wood. Left guard Garrett Scott, center Chris Jasperse, and right guard John Bruhin are all back. They have 38 starts among them with Jordan Jeffries (three), Corey Tenney (two) and Alex Schooler (one) also having started at least one game.
Gator Hoskins (14 catches, 123 yards, a team second-best three touchdowns) has three career starts under his belt at tight end with Eric Frohnapfel (three) and C.J. Crawford (one) also at the position.
Joining Dobson on the outside is Antavious Wilson (29 career starts, 29 catches, 462 yards last season), Jermaine Kelson, Andre Booker, and Demetrius Evans.
They'll all try to improve on an offense that finished near the bottom of the FBS in total offense (102nd at 333.38 yards per game), first downs gained (110th with 16.23 per game), fourth-down conversion percentage (117th at 25.0), and rushing touchdowns (tied for 117 with nine).
''I feel good about our skill level on offense, and I think our offensive linemen have made good strides, and we just have to continue to get better as a football team in all phases,'' Holiday said. ''I think our personnel is better. I know it is. We've got to continue to coach and play extremely hard and develop fundamentals and techniques. Just do what we do - go out and practice hard and get better every day. As long as we do that, we'll be fine.''
For all of those dismal offensive numbers, the defense was a plus for the Herd in 2011. Marshall was eighth in the FBS in tackles for loss (102), tied for 14th with 15 fumble recoveries, 19th in fourth-down efficiency (38.9 percent), tied for 19th in red-zone efficiency (88 percent) and turnovers gained (29).
Still, the Herd allowed 405 yards and 28 points per game.
There is a significant hole to fill along the defensive line, as All-American Vinny Curry was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
They'll be young at linebacker but a wealth of experience at the cornerback position, which is a good thing in a league in which there were five 3,000-yard passers in 2011.
''I think we're more athletic on defense as a whole,'' Holiday said.
Marques Aiken, a redshirt junior with 15 career starts, mans one defensive end position, while Jeremiah Taylor (10 starts), James Rouse (seven), and Brandon Sparrow (two) all have starting experience. Taylor is the leading returner with 3.5 sacks last season. Redshirt sophomore Ra'Shawde Myers is very much in the mix here as one of the leading candidates to take Curry's spot.
Devin Arrington, back at linebacker after a stint at free safety, has 24 career starts under his belt. He teams with Jermaine Holmes (eight) and Billy Mitchell (two) as experienced linebackers. Among those in the mix for a starting position is former Riverside High standout Raheem Waiters and Evan McKelvey, moved from safety when Marshall picked up Boston College graduate transfers Okechukwu Okoroha and Dominick LeGrande.
The cornerbacks are Monterius Lovett (16 career starts), Darryl Roberts (14), Zach Dunston (one) and Phillip Warren (one). There is no one with starting experience at safety, though D.J. Hunter, who redshirted in 2011, is said to have considerable upside at safety. He'll be joined by LeGrande and Okhorha.
With a lot of players having experience in different positions, Marshall will, at times, play a hybrid 4-2-5 defense.
Kicker Tyler Warner and punter/holder Kase Whitehead are gone, the kicking game is wide open.