2014 CFN Preview - Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato
Posted Jul 1, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Marshall could be knocking on some very big doors. (Getty Images

Marshall Thundering Herd

Preview 2014  

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 Marshall Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
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Head coach: Doc Holliday
4th year: 27-24
Returning Lettermen
Off. 28, Def. 28, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 15
Ten Best Herd Players
1. QB Rakeem Cato, Sr.
2. WR Tommy Shuler, Sr.
3. DT James Rouse, Sr.
4. LB Jermaine Holmes, Sr.
5. C Chris Jasperse, Sr.
6. RB Steward Butler, Jr.
7. LB Evan McKelvey, Jr.
8. OT Clint Van Horn, Jr.
9. CB Darryl Roberts, Sr.
10. RB Kevin Grooms, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 at Miami Univ.
Sep. 6 Rhode Island
Sep. 13 Ohio
Sep. 20 at Akron
Oct. 4 at Old Dominion
Oct. 11 Middle Tenn
Oct. 18 at FIU
Oct. 25 Florida Atlantic
Nov. 8 at Southern Miss
Nov. 15 Rice
Nov. 22 at UAB
Nov. 28 WKU

Marshall is poised to erupt into a modern-day version of 1998 Tulane, with QB Rakeem Cato playing the part of Shaun King.

All of the pieces are in place for the Thundering Herd to duplicate what Tommy Bowden's Green Wave did 16 years ago, sweeping the schedule behind a high-scoring attack.

Marshall is the hands-down class of Conference USA in the preseason, even if it failed to defeat Rice in last December's league championship game. Cato spearheads a dynamic all-around attack that isn't going to feel much resistance from a cotton-soft schedule. In fact, it's going to take an upset to knock off the Herd during the regular season.

Cato has been a revelation for a program that had sunk into mediocrity ever since QB Byron Leftwich graduated in 2002. In the decade that followed, the Herd was 13 games below .500, an uncharacteristically long slump for a school accustomed to title contention.

But the climate around the program began to change in 2013, a 10-win campaign marked by one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. A Military Bowl win over Maryland could prove to be the launching point for Marshall's return to the national spotlight.

The Herd lost last year's league championship game to the Owls, 41-24. But wearing the crown in 2014 is just one of a number of goals. This team is so flush in returning talent, beyond just its quarterback, that a perfect season is a realistic quest. Cato is the cover boy, but the running game is deep, WR Tommy Shuler is a two-time 100-catch guy and the line features a pair of returning all-stars. Scoring points will not be a problem this fall.

Not to be overlooked, 10 starters return to coordinator Chuck Heater's D, which took a quantum leap in 2013. Just one year after the Herd yielded 43 points per game, the unit nearly slashed that number in half to rank No. 4 in the league. Marshall, under Heater's orders, attacks from all angles with speed and tenacity. The defense ought to be every bit as nasty this fall, especially since game-changing DT James Rouse has been granted a sixth year of eligibility.

If college football still had BCS busters, Marshall would be on the short list of teams vying for the right to play in a marquee postseason game. Instead, the Herd will be eyeing some lesser December event that attracts far less attention. Still, the potential is in place for this to be a memorable season in Huntington, the kind in which losses are as uncommon as defensive struggles.

What to watch for on offense: Shuler … and then what? Senior Tommy Shuler can be penciled in for a third-straight 100-catch season, but who else picks up the slack in the receiving corps? The Herd's second and third-leading receivers, Gator Hoskins and Devon Smith, respectively, leave gaping holes in the passing game. Hoskins, in particular, was a red-zone beast. The staff is excited by the potential of sophomore Justin Hunt, who could be the field-stretcher QB Rakeem Cato needs. Hunt has terrific size-speed numbers, which he used to school DBs throughout the spring.

What to watch for on defense: Hunter's transition. Junior D.J. Hunter struggled in coverage at times as a safety in 2013, so he's moving back to strongside linebacker, where he racked up 102 tackles as a rookie in 2012. The coaching staff has no concerns about his overall physical ability. In fact, it recognizes the junior as one of the best all-around athletes on defense. The Herd feels that from the second level, Hunter can once again get back to racking up 8-10 stops per game.

This team will be far better if … both lines can be rebuilt between now and the opener. Marshall has lost three starting offensive linemen and most of the D-line to graduation. Sure, the news that DT James Rouse was granted a sixth year of eligibility generated a sigh of relief out of Huntington. And the Herd is loaded at the skill positions. But the team still has a lot to prove in the trenches, especially when facing opponents content to run the ball in an old-school, north-south fashion.

The Schedule: The Herd get a nice and breezy start to the season with Miami University and Akron on the road wrapped around home games with Rhode Island and Ohio – they need to be 4-0 before kicking off conference play at Old Dominion. It doesn't get much tougher the rest of the way with the one big showdown against defending C-USA champ Rice at home and without having to deal with back-to-back road games after early October. Getting the Owls along with Southern Miss and UAB from the West isn't too bad, while the two of the really big tests against Middle Tennessee and WKU are at home.

Best Offensive Player: Senior QB Rakeem Cato. Cato is no longer just the face of the Marshall offense. He's the face of the program and of Conference USA heading into 2014. Cato runs the show in Huntington, accurately dishing like a point guard for one of the nation's nine 40-point offenses last season. Sans prototypical size, he's the total package, with the ability to beat defenses with his arm, his feet and his head. The Thundering Herd is finally back to a 10-win level in large part because of the playmaking ability of No. 12. And both the quarterback and his program are dreaming of even grander achievements this season.

Best Defensive Player: Senior DT James Rouse. When Rouse was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, Conference USA O-linemen winced. The all-star was one of the league's toughest linemen to handle in 2013, routinely whipping his guy with a sudden first step and the upper strength to move the line of scrimmage. Rouse plays like a man among boys in the trenches, tossing aside blockers as if they're running backs. If he attracts double-teams, it'll give the rest of the line a clearer path to the backfield.

Key players to a successful season: The defensive ends. The Herd needs to provide more support up front for DT James Rouse, who's easily the program's best pass rusher. It's going to require a collaborative effort, from veteran Ra'Shawde Myers stepping up his game to a couple of last year's reserves flourishing in expanded roles. Marshall is deep and talented in the defensive backfield. That secondary will become downright nasty if the D-line can prevent opposing quarterbacks from checking down to locate an open receiver.

The season will be a success if ... the Herd goes undefeated for the first time since 1999. Sure, a perfect season is never an easy task, regardless of the schedule strength, but Marshall is capable of running the table this fall. In fact, it's going to require an upset for this program to be taken down in the regular season. As long as Cato stays healthy, there's no reason for the Herd to shoot below 14-0, ending with a Conference USA title and an exclamation point bowl victory.

Key game: Nov. 15 vs. Rice. The Thundering Herd gets the home game with the Owls that it thought it deserved last December. Marshall traveled to Houston for last year's Conference USA championship game, and was promptly spanked by 17 points on the road. It'll be seeking revenge at Edwards Stadium, while possibly maintaining an unbeaten season and a lead in the league's East Division.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Points per game: Marshall 42.1 – Opponents 22.9
- Third-down %: Marshall 51% – Opponents 34%
- Red-zone touchdown %: Marshall 79% - Opponents 58%

- 2014 Marshall Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players