A year after a near-perfect season, Marshall still hopes to be in contention for a Conference USA title. The Thundering Herd lost 67-66 to WKU in overtime for their only loss of the season in 2014. Marshall has the personnel and schedule to challenge for another C-USA title — but it may again come down to a date with the Hilltoppers to end the season.
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Previewing Marshall’s Offense for 2015
Michael Birdsong, a 6'5", 242-pound transfer from James Madison, steps in at quarterback to replace Rakeem Cato, who produced nearly 15,000 total yards and 146 touchdowns in his career. Birdsong possesses a live arm and the starting experience to help Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg keep his attack in the top 15 nationally for a fourth-straight year.
Birdsong will have plenty of help from a veteran group of skill players that includes senior running back Devon Johnson and junior Remi Watson as well as a bevy of talented receivers. Johnson rushed for 1,767 yards — sixth best in FBS — and 17 touchdowns last year, while Watson added another 546 yards on the ground for an offense that averaged 6.8 yards per rush in 2014.
While there is a new quarterback, the targets at receiver are familiar. Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and Deon-Tay McManus provide the Herd with guys who can stretch the field. Marshall has to replace Tommy Shuler, who left as Conference USA’s all-time leader in receptions, but the Herd coaching staff is high on Hyleck Foster, who had a strong year as a freshman reserve.
Along the offensive front, Marshall has moved right guard Michael Selby to center to replace four-year starter Chris Jasperse, who logged more than 4,000 career snaps. Right tackle Clint Van Horn and left guard Sebastian Johansson are proven starters, but the unproven entity will be sophomore Sandley Jean-Felix, who will assume the left tackle spot.
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Previewing Marshall’s Defense for 2015
Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater transformed a team that was next to last in the nation in scoring defense in 2012 to a defense that was No. 18 in 2014, but his hands are full in 2015.
Top cornerback Darryl Roberts is gone, along with linebacker Neville Hewitt, who was Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. While Hewitt’s loss looks biggest on paper, Roberts had keyed the defensive turnaround with an ability to win one-on-one battles, which freed up Heater to send multiple blitzes at the opposition. To continue this scheme, cornerbacks Keith Baxter, Antavis Rowe and Chris Williams-Hall will need to emerge quickly as physical defenders.
Hewitt became a leader in the middle of the defense last season, but Marshall is high on Shawn Petty, a transfer from Maryland who excelled in the spring. Petty joins D.J. Hunter and Evan McKelvey in a linebacking corps that should be among the best in the conference. McKelvey returns after missing much of 2014 with a knee injury.
The biggest defensive concerns will be the lack of a proven pass rusher, so big things will be asked of UCF transfer Blake Keller. Gary Thompson has shown his playmaking ability in spurts, and Joe Massaquoi is a guy who had a solid preseason.
Previewing Marshall’s Specialists for 2015
Marshall returns one of the nation’s top punters in Tyler Williams, a Ray Guy Award candidate who has averaged 43.7 yards per punt in his career. Nick Smith is the likely replacement for Justin Haig at kicker, but Amoreto Curraj, who will handle kickoff duties, is also a candidate. The Herd’s kick return game looks strong with Deandre Reaves, who returned a kickoff for a score in the bowl win. Foster is the likely punt returner.
Johnson’s return and a bevy of talented receivers help ease the pressure on Birdsong for an offense that has eclipsed 500 yards per game on average for each of the last three seasons. If the defense provides anything this season, the Herd — who face another soft schedule — should be in contention for a Conference USA Championship and potential New Year’s Six bowl berth.