Marshall is the odds-on favorite to capture the Mid-American Conference title in 2002. But beyond that, the Thundering Herd have their sights set on proving to the college football world that they can go toe-to-toe with just about anybody in the country.
They'll get that chance Sept. 12 when they travel to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech for ESPN's Thursday night game. Marshall will also have a number of marquee matchups and potential statement games against elite opponents in the years to come.
In 2003, the Thundering Herd face Tennessee and LSU in back-to-back weeks. Road trips to Ohio State and Georgia are scheduled for 2004. Projecting ahead to 2007, they'll travel to Miami (Fla.) and to Wisconsin.
|Marshall QB Byron Leftwich had a TD-to-interception ratio of better than 5-to-1 in 2001.|
For one more season, head coach Bob Pruett will have super blue-chip QB Byron Leftwich at the helm. Blessed with awesome physical skills, Leftwich threw for more than 4,000 yards and completed 67 percent of his aerials in 2001. In addition, his TD (38) to interception (7) ratio was astounding. A cool customer and highly respected team leader, he's No. 1 on my board of top senior prospects available in the 2003 NFL draft.
With so many challenging road games on the horizon for this program, the Herd have to look beyond Leftwich to see who will be the heir apparent at QB. Sophomore Stan Hill will be the primary backup this season.
But the new starting QB in 2003 could come from a group that includes record-setting juco transfer Graham Gochneaur (6-foot-4, 210) and highly regarded freshmen Jimmy Skinner and Adam Black. Gochneaur comes to the Thundering Herd from Kilgore Junior College in Texas. All three figure to redshirt this season.
Besides Leftwich, the Thundering Herd bring back all of their skill-position talent and an offensive line that should be outstanding.
The running game will be keyed by junior Franklin Wallace, coming off a 2001 campaign that saw him rush for nearly 800 yards and average 5.2 yards per carry. Senior Brandon Carey is the backup at RB, but observers close to the program can't wait to see what sophomore Darrell Sheppard (6-2, 235) has to offer. The physically talented Sheppard sat out last year as a Prop 48 casualty but could provide a nice lift off the bench. Another newcomer who could provide an impact is blue-chip freshman Tank Tunstalle, the West Virginia high school player of the year in 2001.
The Thundering Herd boast one of the deepest and most talented wide-receiving corps in the country. Leftwich has a big-time primary target in junior Darius Watts (91 catches, 15.6-yard average, 18 TDs last season). Senior Denero Marriott had 56 catches last year (14.3-yard average, nine TDs), while sophomore Josh Davis set an NCAA record last year with a whopping 79 catches (12.2-yard average, five TDs).
Leftwich also has quite a safety valve with the potential displayed in the spring by junior TE Jason Rader (6-4, 260). A former Parade High School All-American with excellent hands, Rader sat out last season after transferring from Georgia.
Up front, the Thundering Herd may have the top tackle tandem in college football with senior LT Steve Sciullo and underrated junior RT Nate McPeek. Both are huge and highly skilled.
While the offense will again be prolific, figuring to score points at will against most MAC opponents, the defense has a number of question marks heading into the 2002 season. But the defensive line could be better than advertised, while the secondary returns four players with tons of experience.
Up front, senior Orlando Washington and physically talented sophomore Josh Cordell (6-5, 300) return as the starting DTs. On the outside, much is expected from junior Marcus Hairston (6-2 - 235). The former TE and RB made the permanent switch to DE in the spring, showcasing impressive outside pass rush ability. During the spring game, the cat-quick Hairston sacked Leftwich for a safety. Sophomore Jamus Martin, a reserve last season, moves into the starting lineup at the other DE spot.
While the defensive line could be OK, Pruett and his staff are hoping that the new-look linebacking corps holds up its end of the bargain. The key graduation loss was that of MLB Max Yates, who led the team in tackles last season and provided a ton of veteran leadership. Senior Duran Smith will be called on to fill that void.
While questions abound at LB and at one DE spot, the secondary should be a strength if it gets assistance from the guys up front. Battle-tested senior RCB Yancey Satterwhite returns (three interceptions last year and nine pass breakups). On the left side, sophomore Roberto Terrell takes over a starting role after working as the nickel/dime back last season. The major headliner on defense is blue-chip senior FS Chris Crocker, a productive, consistent veteran who had 88 tackles and 10 pass breakups in 2001. Senior Terence Tarpley shifts from CB to rover this season.
Special Teams: Senior Curtis Head will handle both the kicking and punting duties. Range is a problem for Head on field goals; he also has trouble driving kickoffs into the end zone. That's why you could see sophomore Nick Kelly or freshman walk-on Jonathan Dudley handle the kickoff duties.
With such a star-studded and gifted array of talent returning on offense, the Marshall scoreboard operator should be extremely busy in 2002. Leftwich has the physical gifts at QB and is a gritty, tough warrior. He'll benefit once again from the top-flight skill level of the players around him. WR Watts is a spectacular performer, and together with Marriott and Davis combine to give the Thundering Herd a feared group of wideouts. With new TE Rader, a potential standout, Leftwich's amazing passing numbers could be even better than last year. Wallace provides the necessary balance at RB, and it will be interesting to see how much help Sheppard or Tunstalle can provide. LT Sciullo does a phenomenal job keeping blind-side pressure away from Leftwich, while RT McPeek is an All-American-caliber performer as well.
Defensively, the Thundering Herd have some questions to answer. The interior of the line is solid with DTs Washington and Cordell, but will Hairston build on an impressive showing in the spring and provide a consistent outside pass rush? The graduation loss of MLB Yates is huge, and there are new starters at both OLB spots. Heading into fall practice, Smith figures to step in at MLB, but there is reported to be competition at all three spots. The secondary, led by Crocker and Satterwhite, looks good on paper.
In the end, the D will dictate how high up the rankings the Thundering Herd can soar this season. It will also depend on what happens Sept. 12 when they take on Virginia Tech at Blacksburg in a Thursday-night showdown on ESPN. A win would solidify their standing in the top 25, while a defeat would make it difficult to silence the skeptics, since the schedule doesn't provide for any statement games the rest of the way.