The Past Could Repeat Itself

Twenty years ago, Marshall entered its football season with Larry Harris as the starting quarterback and Ohio State transfer Mark Zban as the back up. The after thought in the group of quarterbacks was a scraggly red headed looking freshman from Tennessee. As most people know, Harris got hurt, Zban got hurt, and early on in the season, the freshman was the starter.

That freshman was Chad Pennington. Pennington would go on to be a four year (sorta) starter for the Herd. He would visit the Heisman Trophy Ceremony, and go on to play in the NFL. Pennington is now the premier mouth piece for everything Marshall. He is an ambassador and loves his school. Pennington was also the last quarterback for Marshall to start at the division 1-AA (FCS) level, and then take a year off and start his next game on the division 1-A (FBS) level.

Pennington sat out the 1996 year, holding a clipboard and writing stories for the Herald Dispatch regarding setting and watching Eric Kresser throw touchdowns to Randy Moss for 15 games, 15 perfect games.

Flash forward twenty years, and it could be about to happen again. Michael Birdsong is battling Chase Litton, Gunnar Holcombe and Cole Garvin to be the Herd’s starting quarterback. Birdsong, also a redhead, has not played since November of 2013. At that time he was the quarterback for James Madison University, an FCS team. After setting out a year as a transfer, he is looking to now start at the FBS level.

In 1995, Pennington, scrapped and clawed and led the Herd back to the National Championship after upsetting McNeese State on the road in the semifinals. He struggled at times throughout the season and by the time the year ended had put up the following numbers

Chad Pennington – (1995) – 253 for 354, 2,445 yards, 15 Touchdowns, 15 Interceptions

Birdsong had the ability to actually play two seasons at James Madison before looking to transfer out. He was able to hook up again with Marshall defensive line coach, JC Price, who had recruited Birdsong while he was at James Madison. Birdsong visited Marshall’s spring game last April, and the rest they can say, is history. He committed just a few days later, enrolled in the summer, meshed with his teammates, practiced for a season, won the scout team offensive player of the year, and now has thrust himself to the lead of a four man race to be the next quarterback at Marshall University.

Becoming the quarterback for the Thundering Herd is no small feat. Going all the way back to the mid 1980’s the Herd has always had not good, but excellent play from the quarterback position. Carl Fodor started the run in 1984. Fodor was followed by such greats as John Gregory, Tony Peterson, Michael Payton, Todd Donnan, Chad Pennington, Eric Kresser, Byron Leftwich, Stan Hill, Bernard Morris and Rakeem Cato.

Birdsong played two seasons while at James Madison and put up numbers that were equal to, or slightly better than Pennington’s 1995 campaign. Pennington had one of the top division 1-AA teams to play behind with an excellent offensive line, and a great defense. Birdsong played for a team that finished the year just 6 – 6. The overall talent was nowhere near the 1995 Herd.

In his two years at James Madison, Birdsong put up the following numbers

2012 – 41 for 77, 478 yards, 4 Touchdowns, 1 Interception, 179 rushing yards 2013 – 227 for 376, 2,728 yards, 22 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 310 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns.

Both quarterbacks spent the following year on the sidelines watching great quarterbacks and great offenses perform. Pennington would go on to put up the following numbers as a redshirt sophomore after setting a year out, granted, he did have Randy Moss to throw the football to. Chad Pennington – 1997 – 276 for 473, 3,817 yards, 42 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.

No one expects Birdsong go come out and put up numbers like that, but that doesn’t mean he wont.

Birdsong will have a ton of weapons in his holster as well. Pennington had Doug Chapman and Llow Turner, Birdsong will have Devon Johnson, Steward Butler and Remi Watson. Pennington had Randy Moss, Nate Poole, Jerrald Long, and Lavorn Colclough. Birdsong will have Deontay McManus, Angelo Jean Louis, Davonte Allen, and Hyleck Foster.

Both teams will have either returned, or will be returning a multitude of excellent defensive players. The 1997 defense had BJ Summers and Larry Moore at DB, and Rogers Beckett at Safety. The 2015 team will have Corey Tindal and Keith Baxter at DB, and Taj Letman and A.J. Leggett at Safety.

The 1997 defensive line had B.J. Cohen coming off the defensive end. The 2015 team will have Gary Thompson coming back after two successful seasons. The 1997 interior defensive line had Gerardi Mercer and Jimmy Parker. The 2015 will have senior starters Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon. The 1997 team had multiple linebackers but was led by John Grace. The 2015 team is also deep at the linebacker position led by Evan McKelvey, Shawn Petty, and D.J. Hunter.

Birdsong has not won the job just yet, however, based on reports from practice, and what has been seen at practice, it appears he is edging just a little bit more ahead of the other three every time out. Birdsong has something very similar to Pennington, something that is not having to be taught like Pennington sometimes had to do with Cato the past few years, leadership. Birdsong has a very tight bond with the offensive line that will be protecting him.

Will it be the same type of bond that Pennington had with his, and Leftwich had with his? If you remember Pennington’s bond with his group as they walked off the field at the Motor City Bowl hand in hand. Then there is Leftwich, whose lineman literally carried him physically up and down the field between plays after he broke his leg at Akron.

The relationship between quarterback and offensive line is a special one. It is a relationship that fans are able to see on and off the field. Often, it is what causes fans to carry their support to new levels.

The Herd still has nine spring practices, an entire summer, and fall camp to go through, but if Birdsong can win the job, one can see from the numbers above that making the transition from the FCS level to the FBS level is not impossible, and not only does it happen effectively, but it has happened right here in this town, on this campus, and in this stadium before.

Stay tuned to Herdhaven for further updates and stories as spring practice and recruiting continue to roll on towards the 2015 season.

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