How much of a difference can one player make? It was a question we asked about Nebraska in 2010 after transcendent tackle Ndamukong Suh left for the pros, and it is a question we must now ask of Marshall after the departure of end Vinny Curry. Curry had over one-fifth of Marshall's tackles for loss (22 overall, third in the country), almost half of their sacks (11 overall, sixth in the country), and almost half of their forced fumbles (seven overall, second in the country). He was fourth on the team in tackles as an end, and he blocked three kicks.
Curry was a dominant force for a team that sneaked away with a 5-0 record in one-possession games last year, and now he is a Philadelphia Eagle. Quite a few interesting players return for Doc Holliday's Thundering Herd in 2012, including a set of skill position players on offense, but Curry's production was equal to that of about three decent players; will Marshall be able to sustain a nice step forward without one of its best players ever, not to mention a few other defensive playmakers as well?
It was easy to root for Doc Holliday when he took over at Marshall a couple of seasons ago, primarily because his name is Doc Holliday. It turns out, however, that he can coach a little bit. The Herd improved slightly in 2011, from 98th in F/+ to 87th, but they showed serious close-game prowess despite a true freshman quarterback, and they improved by two wins and pulled off just their second seven-win season since 2003. They were young enough that you can talk yourself into them a bit, but a Wyoming cycle could be in play -- the Cowboys went 6-0 in one-possession games on their way to a 7-6 finish in 2009, went just 2-3 in such games and fell to 3-9 in 2010, then went 5-0 again in 2011 and finished 8-5. An improved team might find worse luck this fall (and therefore end up with a worse record), but with the way Holliday has been recruiting, the program's trajectory is solid, even if the squad takes a step backwards in 2012.
(For what it's worth, the 2010 Nebraska, in fact, did not fall apart. Thanks in part to a ridiculously good secondary, the Huskers actually improved from fourth in Def. F/+ to third in Suh's absence. There is pressure on returnees like end Jeremiah Taylor and a host of young defensive backs to prove they can raise their respective games this fall, but history says it can be done. Will it?)
Seven years ago, Marshall was an epic success story, rising from the 1-AA ranks to the mid-majors with no struggle whatsoever. Now, they are a team that has zero 7+ win seasons in seven years, a team consistently performing like an average-and-no-better CUSA team. What happened exactly? Marshall's athletics budget is competitive with most CUSA programs not named Central Florida, their stadium leaves little to be desired compared to others in the conference not named Central Florida or East Carolina ... what's the problem? Just a bad hire from which they are still recovering? If Doc Holliday is the right guy, is this program capable of a quick turnaround? […]
Color me semi-optimistic about Marshall moving forward. Their average recruiting rankings outpace their recent performance, which suggests at least a little bit of potential. They were incredibly young last year, they return nine starters from a good defense, and their YPP margin suggests they were a bit unlucky to boot. If those surrounding the new quarterback on offense can help form a semi-competent unit, Marshall should at least be able to duplicate their 2010 efforts. If the experience level's across-the-board growth leads to similar growth on the field, then bowl eligibility is a distinct possibility. … Bowl bids should not be too much to ask for this program, however, and I expect Marshall to be bowling (albeit in a semi-unattractive venue) this coming December.
Due mostly to an offense that was rather limited everywhere but at the receiver position, Marshall's ceiling was relatively low in 2011. They proved this at times -- the average score of five of their six losses (sans their 16-6 loss to UCF) was Opponent 46, Marshall 15 -- but almost every time they had a chance to win a game, they did so. Turnovers helped, of course; in terms of Turnover Points, they were plus-13.9 points in a six-point win over Southern Miss, plus-4.7 in a seven-point win over East Carolina and plus-26.2 in a 35-point win over UAB. This is obviously not an amazingly sustainable recipe for success, especially without Curry, but thing about college football is that winning can still beget more winning. In part because of their bowl success, Marshall's 21-man 2012 recruiting class ranked second in Conference USA behind Houston's. They signed 10 three-star recruits and four-star defensive back Amos Leggett, and if the talent continues to upgrade, then a regression in luck might not matter.
Marshall's run to a bowl game began with an inauspicious first step: the naming of true freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato as starting quarterback. Cato gave glimpses of an impressive ceiling -- 27-for-42 for 275 yards against Southern Miss, 18-for-30 for 236 against Louisville, 23-for-29 for 341 against East Carolina -- but he spent a good portion of the season, well, looking like a freshman. He threw four picks in 21 passes in a 44-7 loss to Ohio, completed just 11 of 29 passes versus UCF, and briefly lost his job in October.
Cato survived, however. In his last four games of the season, he completed 79 of 117 passes (68 percent) for 880 yards, six touchdowns and four picks, and he was excellent in Marshall's bowl win over Florida International. Over the last six games overall, Marshall improved from an awful 22.7 Adj. Points per game to an almost-average 26.4.
With Cato at quarterback, Marshall attempted a slow-paced, run-heavy attack to take some pressure off of their quarterback. The problem: they couldn't actually run the ball. They ranked 118th in Rushing Success Rate+, third-worst in the country, which meant that they were constantly falling into passing downs; that is not a good recipe for success, whether your quarterback is a true freshman or an All-American senior.
For better or worse, Marshall must replace three starters on a line that ranked just 97th in Adj. Line Yards. Tackles Ryan Tillman and C.J. Wood combined for 84 career starts, and both are gone, along with guard John Bruhin. The Herd do return five players with starting experience (32 career starts), but it is probably no coincidence that they signed three junior college linemen this year. They need an upgrade. If the line improves, then what were two young all-or-nothing backs a year ago (beautifully-named Tron Martinez and former four-star signee Travon Van) could become steady veterans. The two combined for 1,200 rushing yards last fall, but at only 4.0 yards per carry. They are effective in space -- they combined for 41 receptions and 342 receiving yards -- but they had very little space with which to work in 2012. Both were banged up this spring but are expected to return to full health this fall.
If the run game improves, the passing game could ignite. Four of the top five wideouts return, including all-conference candidate Aaron Dobson (668 receiving yards at 8.1 adj. yards per target in 2011); three interesting tight ends (Gator Hoskins and former three-star recruits C.J. Crawford and Eric Frohnapfel) who combined for 44 receptions also return, and obviously Martinez and Van will continue to be utilized here as well. Last year, I said this about Dobson: "He could be the most important member of the offense in 2011, especially considering the running game still probably won't be very good." And that was before I knew he would be catching passes from a freshman. He was stellar in 2011, and he should get helps from the likes of senior Antavious Wilson, junior Jermaine Kelson, and surging sophomore Tommy Shuler, a high school teammate of Cato's. If a reportedly bulked-up Cato (he was listed at just 6-foot-1, 180 pounds last year) finds himself operating in more standard downs this year because of a better run game, the offense could improve enough to counter what is likely defensive regression.
In talking about his own elusiveness this spring, Rakeem Cato said the following: "There's no way a defensive lineman can catch me. Except Vinny Curry." Curry was an incredible contributor for the Herd, and the entire defense appeared to take on Curry's personality. Nine other players recorded at least 4.5 tackles for loss, and Marshall ranked 14th in forced fumbles (17) and in the country's top 40 in both Adj. Line Yards (36th) and Adj. Sack Rate (25th). But Marshall must replace not only Curry, but also seven of the aforementioned nine players with 4.5 TFLs. They lose two of their top three ends (including Curry), their top three linebackers, their best tackle, their best safety and their most active cornerback. The replacements are intriguing, but they are indeed still replacements.
- Jeremiah Taylor replaces Curry as Marshall's No. 1 end. Opposite Curry, Taylor logged 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks a year ago.
- Some combination of Jermaine Holmes, Billy Mitchell, T.J. Ross, Cortez Carter Deon Meadows, Armonze Daniel and incoming freshman Kent Turene will have to replace the production of departed linebackers Tyson Gale, George Carpenter and Kellen Harris (combined: 170.5 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, six passes broken up, three forced fumbles and an interception). The unit looked strong this spring, but that only means so much.
- Either sophomore Evan McKelvey or three-star junior Zach Dunston will likely replace McKelvey's brother, free safety and big-time playmaker Omar Brown (92.0 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, four picks, four passes broken up). Both looked strong this spring, but that only means so much.
- Some combination of Darryl Roberts and Keith Baxter will need to account for the 13 passes Rashad Jackson defended last year. Players like Baxter and Dunston (each three-star recruits) and a pair of intriguing freshmen -- four-star signee Amos Leggett and three-star Andre Scott -- will determine whether Marshall can in some way approximate last year's success, or whether this will be a transition year for success down the line.
Considering the defensive losses, considering the slim margin for error on last year's squad, and considering a rather tough schedule (five games versus teams projected in the top 50), one would have to figure that a return to bowl eligibility, while possible, should be considered pretty far on the "best case scenario" spectrum. Set the bar at five wins, however, and you may not be disappointed.
This team is absolutely littered with three- and four-star freshmen and sophomores. Rakeem Cato, Travon Van, Tommy Shuler, tackle Josh Lovell, linebacker Jermaine Holmes, corner Keith Baxter, and any number of interesting freshmen should set a high bar over the next three or four years. But 2012 could be a bit of a struggle. Without some defensive playmakers to come up with fourth-quarter stops, Marshall should find the going a bit rougher in close games, and with little margin for error on a tough schedule, Marshall could improve overall but still regress in the win column. Doc Holliday is quickly building a sturdy program, but he might not be able to prevent some temporary struggles in 2012.