Marshall went 9-4 last year and has 13 starters returning, but the Thundering Herd may have to flip the script a little if they want to remain a contender in Conference USA's East Division. Head coach Doc Holliday is having to replace several key pieces on his defense meaning it will be up to the offense to take a step forward.
Previewing Marshall's Offense for 2019
The nucleus of Marshall's offense should be strong with much of the offensive line returning in front of a pair of talented running backs in Brenden Knox, who emerged late in the season as a starter, and Tyler King, who was explosive before injuries sidelined him midseason.
Quarterback Isaiah Green also returns after a successful rookie campaign that saw him land on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team. Green threw for 2,459 yards and 15 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 10 games. The next step for Green: Play with more consistency.
That consistency will be key as Green loses his top target in wide receiver Tyre Brady, who led the team in receiving the last two seasons. Obi Obialo has proven to be a solid target over the past two years, but he will have to step up his game as he takes on the role as the No. 1 receiver. Tavin Richardson, a grad transfer from Kentucky, should help right away.
Look for Marshall to incorporate the tight end in the passing attack more as well, with a pair of solid targets in Armani Levias and Xavier Gaines back in the mix. They combined to catch 38 passes in 2018.
Previewing Marshall's Defense for 2019
Marshall loses a lot of experience from the interior of its front seven, so a team strength last year — stopping the run — could be an issue.
New defensive coordinator Brad Lambert, the former head coach at Charlotte, brings a strong resume to his new job; last year, the 49ers ranked third in Conference USA in both total defense and rushing defense. Still, it could be a rough transition as so many unproven players are taking prominent roles.
Ty Tyler was expected to be a key cog on the interior, but he decided to transfer in May. Tyler's departure will put more pressure on senior Channing Hames to hold down the interior for Marshall's defense. One end spot is in good hands with Marquise Couch, with talented rushers Darius Hodge and Koby Cumberlander poised to see more action. FIU transfer Fermin Silva is also expected to be in the mix for snaps as an edge rusher.
The strength of the defense is the secondary, which returns plenty of experience, led by cornerback Chris Jackson, a four-year starter who has improved each season. The surprising loss of safety Malik Gant to the NFL Draft is somewhat mitigated by the return of Brandon Drayton, who has platooned with Gant and fellow returning safety Nazeeh Johnson the last two seasons. Those safeties will be asked to help in run support due to the inexperience up front.
Previewing Marshall's Specialists for 2019
Placekicker Justin Rohrwasser and punter Robert LeFevre are back, but consistency in the kicking game is still an issue. Wide receiver Willie Johnson will return kickoffs. King is likely to see action in the punt return game after limited experience in that area last season.
Turnovers were a big issue for Marshall's offense in 2018 — the Herd committed 24, second most in the league — but the defense consistently bailed the team out of negative situations. Marshall will have no such luxury in 2019 with many veteran pieces gone from last year's defense.
The offense will have to shore up the turnover issues while identifying new targets in the passing attack, and the defense must have some players in the front seven grow up quickly.
The early portion of the schedule is tough, with nonconference games against Boise State, Ohio and Cincinnati, but if the Herd defense can grow up quickly, Marshall should be in the upper echelon of Conference USA's East Division again.
National Ranking: 71
(Top photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)