By Bryan Walters
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Great programs don’t rebuild, they simply reload.
After three straight 10-win seasons and bowl victories to cap off a trio of successful campaigns, the Marshall University football program is aiming for more of the same in 2016.
The Thundering Herd followed up their only Conference USA championship season in 2014 with a 10-3 overall mark last fall, which included a 6-2 finish and a second place tie with Middle Tennessee State in the East Division.
Marshall also captured the program’s 10th bowl victory in its last 11 chances with a 16-10 decision over Connecticut in the St. Petersburg Bowl — the program’s fifth straight triumph in bowl appearances.
The Herd suffered significant losses on both sides of the ball due to graduation and early departures, but seventh-year MU coach Doc Holliday (50-28) believes that the 2016 gridiron season has the potential to be just as successful as year’s past.
That is, as long as his players are willing to do their collective parts.
“Our standards and expectations are always high here, and we don’t ever go into a season not expecting to win a championship,” Holliday said. “We have good players and good coaches and we must continue to develop. We also cannot forget what has gotten us to where we are.
“We just have to keep working hard, not get complacent and keep holding each other accountable. If we can do those things, we have a chance to be successful this fall.”
The Herd lost significant contributors to from a year ago, most notably linebacker Evan McKelvey — who accounted for a team-high 121 tackles while earning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honors.
In fact, Marshall will be missing six of its top 10 tacklers from a season ago, as well as its leading rusher (Devon Johnson) and its top two receivers in Davonte Allen and Deandre Reaves.
The current group of cornerbacks have one start combined between them, and special teams also took a hit with the losses of punter Tyler Williams and long snapper Matt Cincotta.
There are a few question marks as to who will be stepping in to fill those roles, but Holliday also believes that his returning players can help bridge the gap in the early part of the year.
“We lost a lot of production on both sides of the ball, but we also have a lot of players coming back that can help replace that production,” Holliday said. “We just have to work hard to make sure that that happens.”
The Green and White do have their fair share of strengths in 2016, which includes solid lines on both sides of the ball, the team’s top scoring threat in the passing game and three of the team’s top five rushers from a year ago.
The Herd will also have a productive sophomore quarterback with a season under his belt, a handful of tested wideouts and a reliable kicking game to throw into the mix of positives.
Getting everybody to buy in to this year’s approach has been the early goal for Holliday and his staff. So far, he has liked what he has seen.
“The kids are in good shape and we’ve had a week to go through some things,” Holliday said. “The kids look good, but we have a long way to go. We just have to keep working hard every day and keep getting better.”
After averaging 31.3 points per game last fall, the biggest strength of the Herd appears to be on the offensive side of the ball.
Sophomore Chase Litton returns under center after posting respectable numbers of 231-of-384 passing for 2,608 yards to go along with 23 touchdowns and only eight interceptions as a true freshman last fall.
Holliday is hoping for even more from his signal-caller in 2016, especially with his progression in the last 12 months.
“Any time you play a freshman quarterback, you expect to go through some growing pains,” Holliday said. “He’s matured a lot in the last year and he’s had a great offseason. He’s got the intangibles and he’s a lot further ahead than he was this time a year ago.”
Litton was also benefit from having tight end Ryan Yurachek return as a target. The junior led MU last year with nine touchdown grabs and hauled in 44 passes for 417 yards.
Wideouts Deon-Tay McManus, Justin Hunt and Emanuel Byrd all had at least 19 catches and 200-plus yards of receiving last fall, with McManus leading that trio with 36 receptions for 337 yards. Hunt also led the group with four touchdowns grabs.
Another boost for the offense came in the form of a rare sixth year of eligibility for tackle Clint Van Horn, one of four starters returning up front. The two-time all-conference recipient’s experience and leadership will not only help at the point of attack, but also in the locker room and beyond.
“He just brings so much toughness and leadership to this football team,” Holliday said. “He’s just a good football player and a good leader, and we’re glad to have him back.”
The Herd will have a variety of options and experience at the running back position, with at least four players expecting to take on significant roles in the ground attack.
Junior Hyleck Foster produced 450 yards and three scores on 99 carries last year while also hauling in 17 passes for 96 yards.
Redshirt junior Tony Pittman and redshirt sophomore Keion Davis both accounted for at least 320 rushing yards and two touchdowns apiece in 2015, and redshirt sophomore Anthony Anderson — a 6-foot-2, 252-pound bruiser — is also in the discussion as a transfer from Iowa Western Community College.
“The addition of Anthony (Anderson) provides a lot of depth for us at the position, especially with him being a bigger back,” Holliday said. “Hyleck (Foster) was very versatile and both (Tony) Pittman and (Keone) Davis were able to get a lot of experience when Rock went down last year, so I feel like we have some playmaking options at the position.”
Redshirt junior Nick Smith led MU in scoring in 2015 after connecting on 18-of-25 field goal attempts and all 28 of his point-after tries.
Defensively, the Herd’s biggest strength will come from the trenches — most notably in the form of redshirt senior Gary Thompson. Thompson led the MU defense last year with 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks to go along with 59 total tackles.
Redshirt sophomore Ryan Bee and redshirt junior Blake Keller also bring a combined 98 tackles — including 14 for loss — and four sacks back to the frontline.
Senior Devontre-a Tyler is one of the few experienced linebackers coming back after producing 51 tackles and a sack last fall, while senior safety Tiquan Lang trailed on McKelvin in tackles after posting solid stats of 91 tackles and two interceptions — both of which resulted in touchdowns.
Junior safety Kendall Gant (39 tackles, 2 INTs) and redshirt junior cornerback Rodney Allen (29 tackles, 3 INTs) will also bring some experience to the secondary.
“I think the strength of our defense will be our ability to run. Our defensive front is very athletic and has some depth,” Holliday said. “We lost a lot of production at our linebacking positions, but I also feel like we have some guys back there that have the potential to replace that production. The secondary is also young, but it’s going to be talented.”
Of Marshall’s 16 All-Conference USA selections from a season ago, only Bee, Yurachek, Thompson, Lang and senior offensive lineman Michael Selby are returning. Selby, Van Horn, Yurachek and Thompson have also been nominated as preseason C-USA choices for 2016.
The Thundering Herd will have only 14 seniors on the roster this fall, and that group will play a key role in how successful things end up going.
“The thing I can say over the last few seasons is that our seniors have played their best football … and we need to have that happen again,” Holliday said. “There aren’t that many seniors on this roster, but the ones we do have will have to play well.”
Marshall will have a nice luxury in its 2016 schedule, with seven of its dozen contests slated to happen in the friendly confines of Joan C. Edwards Stadium — including its first three of the season and five of its first seven overall.
The Herd will face a tough non-conference stretch against the likes of Morgan State, Akron and Louisville to open the home season before traveling to Pittsburgh for its final tuneup before C-USA action.
MU should certainly be seasoned and tested before league play begins, but Holliday is confident that facing tough competition will only make the Green and White a better team as the year progresses.
“We’ll embrace our tough schedule, but right now we just have to get better as a football team,” Holliday said. “The good thing is that we have seven of them at home, so we will just have to prepare and make sure that we are ready to go.”
Marshall has never had four consecutive 10-win seasons at the Division I level, but Holliday notes that achieving such a feat would be just another step in the right direction for the program.
Holliday — who is a perfect 4-0 in bowl games as MU head coach — would also like to see the program take another step closer to reaching the six straight bowl appearances achieved between 1997 and 2002, which currently serves as best in school history.
“We have high expectations here and I don’t want to be anywhere that expectations aren’t that way. Fortunately, expectations are high here and that’s a good thing,” Holliday said. “This was the winningest college football program in the Nineties, and hopefully we can continue to get it back to where it was.”
The Thundering Herd begin the 2016 campaign at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, when they welcome Morgan State in a non-conference contest.
Bryan Walters is the Ohio Valley Publishing sports editor and can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.