Non-Conference Schedule Is Huge for Marshall
By TRACY WATSON
HUNTINGTON — Coming off another impressive campaign for Coach Doc Holliday’s Marshall football team, it faces a pair of huge non-conference games early in 2016 that could go a long way in deciding its fate.
Holliday’s troops finished last season with a 10-3 ledger, ending things with a 16-10 victory against Connecticut in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Entering his eighth campaign in Huntington, Holliday has guided his squad to an 50-28 record, including a Conference USA championship two years ago.
Marshall will face four non-conference opponents this season, leading off with home tilts against Morgan State and Akron. But the Herd cannot afford a slip up in either of those games with Louisville paying a visit Sept. 24 and Marshall travels to Heinz Field for an Oct. 1 battle with highly regarded Atlantic Coast Conference foe Pittsburgh in Week 4.
However, this is a Thundering Herd team that is one of only five programs in the country with at least 10 victories in each of the last three seasons.
“Expectations are extremely high not only from our community and our university, but our football team as well,” Holliday said this summer. “And we are going to work extremely hard to get better as a football team and staff everyday as we work to try and do it again.
“I never wanted to be a football coach where the standards and expectations aren’t extremely high. I want to embrace that and that’s what I want. Marshall gave me the chance to be somewhere that you can win championships. I’ve appreciated everything Marshall has done for me and I’m happy to be the head coach here.”
The offense will begin the season ahead of the defense with seven starters returning on that side of the ball. The defense welcomes back four returning starters.
Quarterback Chase Litton leads the way, coming off a freshman campaign in which he completed 230 of 383 attempts for 2,605 yards and 23 touchdowns while being intercepted eight times. Litton became the team’s starting quarterback in Week 3 last season.
Senior Michael Birdsong transferred leaving redshirt freshman Coy Pettit of Cabell Midland High School available.
“Every time you play a true freshman you go through growing pains because they are a true freshman,” Holliday told reporters. “But I thought he (Litton) embraced it and I thought he exceeded expectations last year. He also understands the expectations of being a quarterback at Marshall University are extremely high and he has embraced that responsibility.”
Unfortunately for Holliday the team’s top two receivers — Devonte Allen (58-715-5) and Deandre Reaves (56-705-4) — are gone along with the Herd’s leading rusher Devon Johnson — 593 yards, 5TD. Johnson was a first team All-conference USA performer and was in Carolina Panthers camp.
Junior Deon-Tay McManus, a second team all-conference receiver returns and will be joined by senior Justin Hunt and sophomores Michael Clark and Raylen Elzy to lead the receiving corps, while the main running chores will go to junior Hyleck Foster, who ran for 453 yards and three scores last season, and sophomore Keion Davis.
Marshall will run a lot of two tight-end sets with senior Emanuel Byrd and junior returning starter Ryan Yurachek (44-417-10) joined by sophomore backup Kaleb Harris. Yurachek’s 10 touchdown catches were the most by any tight end in the country.
What could be the team’s biggest strength lies in the interior line with four starters back to help pave the way. Junior Sandley Jean-Felix returns at left tackle with senior Clint Van Horn, the only first team all-conference returnee, back on the right side. Senior Michael Selby moves from center to right guard with sophomore Jordan Dowrey moving from right guard to the left side. Sophomore Nathaniel Devers takes over at center to anchor the line.
Sophomore Fedrice Binot is available at left tackle, sophomore Joey Maddox at left guard, junior Cody Collins at right guard and junior AJ Addison at right tackle.
The defense took a huge hit, losing first team all-conference linebacker D.J. Hunter along with second-team performers Evan McKelvey (LB) and Taj Letman (S). The Herd led Conference USA in giving up the fewest points in 2015.
Leading the way in 2016 will be book-end defensive ends Gary Thompson, a senior, and Ryan Bee, a sophomore, who are both returning starters. Middle linebacker Devontre’a Tyler is back while the fourth and final returnee on defense is senior free safety Tiquan Lang.
The tackles will be sophomore Nyquan Harris and junior Tomell One along with junior outside linebacker Davon Durant and sophomore Frankie Hernandez. Juniors Rodney Allen and Antavis will be the corners with C.J. Reavis at strong safety.
Senior Joe Massaquoi and junior Blake Keller are the backup ends with sophomores Jason Smith and Malik Thompson available at tackle. Senior Shawn Petty, junior Raheim Huskey and sophomore Chase Hancock could all see playing time at lineback with sophomore T.J. Griffin and freshman Chris Jackson at corner and junior Kendall Gant and freshman Jeremiah Maddox at safety.
Junior Kaare Vedvik replaces first team all-conference punter Tyler Williams while junior Nick Smith is back to handle the kicking chores. Foster will return punts and Harris will try to replace special teams ace Deandre Reaves returning kicks.
Yurachek was named to the John Mackey Award preseason watch list for the country’s best tight end while Nick Smith is mentioned on the Lou Groza list and Van Horn on the watch list for the Outland Trophy.
Holliday, a West Virginia University graduate, will be assisted by Bill Legg, Chuck Heater, Pepe Pearson, Sean Cronin, Adam Fuller, Dave Dunn, Todd Goebbel, Alex Mirabal, J.C. Price and Mark Gale.
Marshall enters 2016 looking to advance to and capture its sixth consecutive bowl victory. The Thundering Herd is also one of just two Conference-USA schools to face three non-conference schools that played in bowl games last year (Akron, Louisville, Pittsburgh), the other was the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Sept. 10: Morgan State 6 p.m.
Sept. 17: Akron Noon
Sept. 24: Louisville 8 p.m.
Oct. 1: at Pittsburgh TBA
Oct. 8: at North Texas 7 p.m.
Oct. 15: Florida Atlantic 7 p.m.
Oct. 22: Charlotte 5:30 p.m.
Oct. 29: at Southern Miss. 7 p.m.
Nov. 5: at Old Dominion 7 p.m.
Nov. 12: Middle Tennessee 7 p.m.
Nov. 19: Florida International 7 p.m.
Nov. 26: Western Kentucky TBA
Win 9, Lose 3