We are less than a month away from the Marshall Thundering Herd’s 2018 football season opener and excitement is building for what this season could be for Doc Holliday’s squad after a five-win improvement in 2017 compared to the dismal 2016 season.
Marshall returns 18 starters from a team that finished the 2017 season at 8-5 overall with a New Mexico Bowl victory and is expected to be even better in 2018. The Herd boasts nine returning starters offensively and should make even greater strides this season under new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey.
However, the defensive side of the ball is where the Herd could be truly special in 2018. With nine starters back, Marshall is one of the most experienced defenses in C-USA and after finishing second in C-USA in scoring defense and third in total defense in 2017, those numbers could get even better.
The Herd’s defensive line should be stout this season with seven of its top 10 players from 2017 back in 2018, including second-team all-conference defensive tackle in senior Ryan Bee. Bee was named to the Outland Trophy watch list and Bronko Nagursky Trophy watch list heading into the 2018 season.
The line also returns key contributors in junior Ty Tyler, 2017 New Mexico Bowl Defensive Most Valuable Player in junior Channing Hames, and former linebacker turned defensive end in senior Juwon Young who found himself on the Butkus Award watch list heading into this season.
This unit could be the deepest it has been since Holliday became the head coach nearly a decade ago. But for as good as the defensive line could be in 2018, the linebacker unit could be even better and could result in a banner year with the amount of talent that’s back.
Marshall’s linebacker unit returns every single player that saw playing time in 2017, led by an all-conference first-teamer in senior Chase Hancock who accounted for a staggering 128 tackles in 2017 along with 7.5 tackles-for-loss and seven pass breakups. The former walk-on was selected to the Wuerffel Award watch list heading into the 2018 season.
The Herd also returns senior Frankie Hernandez, senior Artis Johnson, sophomore Jaquan Yulee, and junior Omari Cobb along with several others that could step up and make an impact. Marshall’s linebackers make up arguably the biggest strength of the entire team heading into the 2018 season.
The secondary is also comprised of several key contributors from the 2017 team that return in 2018, led by junior cornerback Chris Jackson who was named an all-conference second-team selection in 2017. The cornerbacks, who lose only one starter from last season, also return sophomore Jaylon McClain-Sapp who saw key playing time as a freshman in 2017.
This secondary’s biggest strength comes with the safeties, paced by former walk-on and second-team all-conference strong safety in junior Malik Gant. Gant, who was selected to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list prior to the 2018 season, accounted for 100 tackles last season along with 6.5 tackles-for-loss and five pass breakups.
The unit also returns rising free safety in sophomore Brandon Drayton, who had a stellar freshman season despite inconsistent playing time. Drayton racked up 62 tackles, five pass breakups, and three tackles-for-loss during the 2017 season.
Marshall’s cornerbacks and safeties have younger players looking for a chance to make an impact as well, so the returning talent coupled with the new talent could be a big win for the Herd’s defense.
This defense has playmakers all over the field and new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller, a member of Holliday’s staff over the past few seasons, has a lot to work with heading into the 2018 season.
An underrated aspect of the Herd’s success last season came courtesy of the special teams unit. And with losing all-everything kicker Kaare Vedvik this season, the task could be difficult finding someone to fill the huge void he leaves behind. Vedvik was Marshall’s field goal kicker, kickoff specialist, and punter in 2017.
The team believes Rhode Island transfer Justin Rohrwasser can fill the field goal kicker position nicely. Rohrwasser, who will be a junior in 2018, connected on 15 out of his 20 field goal attempts while at Rhode Island.
Redshirt freshman Shane McDonough could find himself as the Herd’s new punter in 2018 and sophomore Robert LeFevre is expected to compete for a kicking position as well.
In terms of kickoff returns, Marshall returns one of the more effective kickoff returners it has seen in a while in senior running back and Paul Hornung Award watch list selection Keion Davis, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2017 while averaging 30.4 yards-per-return and making the all-conference second-team as a kickoff returner.
The punt returner position is up in the air, but several guys could realistically fill that void heading into the 2018 season after several players split time in the role in 2017.
Simply put, Marshall has a lot to work with across the board in 2018. Offensively and defensively, the Herd has stars all across the field that are among the best players in C-USA. In fact, college football guru Phil Steele ranks every Marshall position group at least fourth best in C-USA while notching two number one rankings in the defensive line and linebackers.
The special teams unit has a lot to prove after the loss of Vedvik, but if it can pick up the slack and the quarterback position works out offensively, Marshall could be a potential Group of Five representative in a New Year’s Six bowl game. The Herd’s season kicks off Sept. 1 on the road at Miami (OH).