By Bryan Walters
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — After three consecutive 10-win seasons, Marshall football suffered through a tumultuous 2016 campaign that saw the Herd finish 3-9 overall while placing tied for last in the Conference USA East standings.
It was also a gridiron season that left a lot of Herd fans asking questions, with the most popular inquisition being somewhat simple to understand.
Marshall endured its worst fall in seven years under head coach Doc Holliday (53-37) as the Green and White battled injuries, inexperience and other elements while also taking on a beefed-up schedule that resulted in a 1-5 record against FBS Bowl-qualifying programs.
Marshall was outscored by a 423-317 overall margin in a dozen contests and also got outmatched by a 258-159 count in CUSA East Division games, which led to a 2-6 mark and a seventh place tie with Florida Atlantic in the final league standings.
Last year’s Herd group also joined the 2007 squad as the only teams in program history to go 3-9 since Marshall returned to the Division I level back in 1997. Those three-win campaigns are also the worst for the Green and White during that two-decade-long span.
The good thing about last season is that it has long been over … and preparations for the 2017 campaign have already been put into action.
And Saturday, during the annual Marshall Football Spring Scrimmage at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, some of the questions lingering from 2016 just might come with some noticeable answers.
There will be 133 days between the 2017 season opener against visiting Miami (OH) and Saturday’s spring game, which is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
During that time, Holliday and the Herd have issues to address in all three phases of the game — particularly with loss 13 graduated players and a handful of others no longer with the program.
Here are some of the things to look for during Saturday’s spring game.
The Herd gained 350 yards and scored 26.4 points per game, with the quarterback duo of Chase Litton and Garet Morrell combining to produce 241.8 yards per game through the air.
Marshall will have both of those experienced players back under center, but the biggest question facing that duo will be who will they throw the ball to?
With the exception of the always dependable Ryan Yurachek at tight end, the Herd lost five of their top six receivers to either graduation or early entries into the NFL Draft.
MU is a lot more fortunate on the ground as the team’s top six rushers from last fall are all back, but the offensive line lost a pair of All-CUSA blockers to graduation … so who will step in to lead a rushing attack that yielded 108.2 yards per game?
Marshall does return its top seven producers in total yardage from last fall.
Marshall surrendered 456 yards and allowed 35.2 points per game, with an average of 202.3 yards coming from the opposition’s ground attack. MU was outscored 258-159 in the first half of games in 2016 and also went 0-5 in road contests, yet somehow finished plus-four in turnover differential at season’s end.
The Herd will return a dozen of its top 15 tacklers from a year ago, but the biggest losses come with the graduations of safety Corey Neely — who led the team in total tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions — and sack-leading defensive lineman Gary Thompson.
The Green and White will also be looking to improve on a secondary that allowed 253.7 yards per game through the air while coming away with only eight interceptions on the season.
Both kicker Amoretto Curraj and punter Kaare Vedvik are back from last season, and both will be aiming for improvement in their special crafts.
Curraj made 39-of-42 extra-point chances and was also 4-of-10 on field goal attempts, which ultimately led MU in individual scoring with 51 points. Curraj’s long also came from 39 yards out.
Vedvik had 70 punts for 2,800 yards over the course of the 2016 campaign, which produced an average of 40 yards per attempt. Vedvik also produced a season-long boot of 72 yards.
The Herd will also be fortunate in the return department as last year’s leaders in punt returns (Hyleck Foster) and kick returns (Keion Davis) will be back.
Marshall was 3-4 at home last fall and was outscored 256-162 in CUSA East play, averages of 32.0 points allowed and 20.3 points for. … MU converted 59-of-173 third down attempts last year for 34 percent, while the opposition went 66-for-165 on third downs for 40 percent. … Of Marshall’s 16 turnovers in 2016, only four of them were lost on fumbles. … The Herd’s lone win over an FBS Bowl qualifier last fall came against Middle Tennessee State during a 42-17 decision at Edwards Stadium on Nov. 12, 2016. … The Herd enters the 2017 campaign with a two-game losing skid.
Bryan Walters is the Ohio Valley Publishing sports editor and can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.