Spring Football Leaves Many Questions For MU

Normally, spring football is a necessary evil for players and a time for coaches to fill the time between signing day and junior recruiting. If a team has a successful year, and has lots of experience coming back for a veteran coaching staff, then you work out the bugs, put in some trick plays and fine-tune the machine each year. For Marshall, however, coming off the first losing season in two decades with a coach who has just recently finished his first year, that just is not the case.

While Mark Snyder has a good deal more experience coming back than last year when he took over the Herd the day before the Green-White game, with just six returning starters, there are still questions to be answered for the Herd to get back on track against a very tough schedule for 2006. Three of the first four games will be on the road, including a heated rivarly game at West Virginia, who is a top five team in many early polls, and at Kansas State and at Tennessee. Those games are wrapped around a home game with good I-AA team in Hofstra. Then the Herd will be opening Conference USA, year two, with the East Division champions in UCF at home, before two more road games uin the league, and that certainly does the Herd no favors. But this is the hand dealt. How the coaches deal with it, beginning in August, will tell us if the Herd returns to post-season play. But first, what have we learned this spring?

How about a starting quarterback?

Well, yes and no. Snyder said on Saturday that junior Bernard Morris is slightly ahead of seniors Jimmy Skinner and Derek Devine, but that is not a ringing endorsement. Bernie Morris played in nine games and started six in 2005, just his second full season of playing quarterback (including his senior year of high school, after moving from receiver). Morris passed for 1,121 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions. He has been more consistant this spring than any other QB the Herd has on the roster, and certainly seems to run the option better, and much faster, than any other candidate. Will he step up and make this team his in August? You certainly hope so, as both fans and coaches. Devine will push Skinner hard at number two, while red-shirt freshman QB Wesley Beardain had better keep an eye on incoming freshman Brian Anderson, as a guy who can push for the number two spot as early as 2007.

What about the deep threat the Herd lacked in 2005?

Marshall's Marcus Fitzgerald leads a great group of possession receivers for Herd.photo by Rick Haye for Herd Insider

Unfortunately, that need still exists. While the Herd is stocked with dependable receivers with great hands, guys like senior Hiram Moore, sophomore Emanuel Spann and juniors Marcus Fitzgerald and Shawn Lauzon, none of those players "stretch" the defense. Sophomore Jermaine Filer is still battling the muscle injury that keeps him from being that guy and youngsters like Robert Surratt, E.J. Wynn and Antonio Leath have not pushed any of the uppperclassmen aside...yet. The Herd coaches are surely hoping that prop players sitting out this past year, like Ridge Corbin and William Barber (formerly Lewis), plus incoming freshmen like Courtney Edmonson, Bryant Milligan, Darius Passmore or Travius Thompson can come in and contribute quickly at the "X." Also, look for tight end to be a strength, with the speed of freshman Cody Slate added to the already solid corps of Brian Shope, Matt Parkhurst and Joe Bragg.

The offensive line has injuries, right?

Yes, but its the players who are playing right now that concern observers at practice. Has Seth Cook proved he can be the left tackle? Is Wesley Jones a starting right tackle? Or do the coaches have to move Cook back to the spot he has started two years and go with John Inman at left tackle and Brian Leggett or Zane Bruhin at the right guard? David Ziegler and Doug Legurski are locks at left guard and center. Daniel Baldridge, Bruhin and Matt Altobello have gotten lots of reps this spring with Inman and Ziegler nursing injuries. There are about seven very good offensive linemen, but coach Mike Cummings has to decide who and where in August Depth is coming in the form of incoming freshman Chad Schofield, who is 6-foot-4, 320, Brandon Campbell, 6-5 305, and Josh Evans, a 6-4, 315 pounder from Fayetteville, W.Va., who was also recruited by N.C. State, Wake and WVU.

Ahmad Bradshaw for All-American!

No doubt, the "Graham-bling Ghost" will be one of Conference USA's marquee players as a junior, finishing just three yards short of 1,000 as a soph. With 6-foot-3, 243 pound fullback Will Albin in front of him, look for Bradshaw to run for around 1,200-1,500 yards, and catch another 500-700 more through the air. there is quality at back, with guys like Chubb Small, Paco Jones, Gerwin Williams and Cody Tominack to back up the starters. Freshmen include Ironton's Darius Lewis, who may move to defense, and DeMorris Kilow, 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, a 5A first-teamer in Georgia and MVP of the Emfinger All-American High School All-Star game.

Ahmad Bradshaw leads a strong group of running backs for Herd into year two of Conference USA play.Photo by Greg Perry, HI.

Where, oh where, have the great Herd kickers gone?

Well, on of them is Curtis Head, but he is now a graduate assistant. Here and now, Ian O'Connor is saying this spring, "Not so fast, my California friend." Fans assumed that juco Anthony Binswanger had a lock to be the Herd kicker, but O'Connor has matched him all spring. This competition will not be over until just before the opener at WVU. Meanwhile at punter, no one places punts any better than Marty Biagi. But O'Connor, who says punting is his favorite, has shown a big leg this year, so you may have two punters and two kickers (one for kickoffs and one for placements). Just can't tell you whose who yet.

The defense looks pretty good, but what about the front seven...pretty good?

Albert McClellan one of many experienced defenders in front seven for Herd in 2006.Photo by Greg Perry, HI

Yes, and it is more experienced. A defensive front that includes Albert McClellan, Adrian Davis, Chris Terrell, Juan Underwood, Byron Tinker, Blake Merritt, Shavar Greer, Ryland Wilson, Jason Kaminski and others is very strong. The linebackers have played even better this spring, with Matt Couch at the more natural outside position and Brandon Sounder showing what he can do at "Mike." Dennis Thorton, last year's leading tackler, appears on the way to getting his senior year back and with the addition of Josh Johnson from Georgia Military, and some hard-hitting youngsters like Ian Hoskins, John Jacobs and Maurice Kitchens, the Herd is loaded for its front seven. Fast, and hungry!

How about all the losses in the secondary?

There were, but it is somewhat deceptive. Geremy Rodamer started some last year for Chris Royal and has slid in quickly to free safety this year. Strong safety Curtis Keyes is one of the best hitters in C-USA or any league in America, for that matter. C.J. Spillman, Phillip Gamble and John Saunders give the Herd good young safeties and great special teams players. Of more concern is losing Willie Smith and Chris Hawkins, to possible NFL careers, at corner. James Johnson, Chuck Roberts and Terrick Thomas look like they have the skills, but they will have to learn on the run. Jeremy Frazie is a sensation spot-player, a hard-hitter who knows no fear, but not a starter. Ivan Clark is a special teams sensation, but will not play much corner in games. Look for freshmen like Ashton Hall, Kevin Perry or Aaron Johnson to get a look in August at least at nickle, as Spillman did last year.

What do you think about 2006?

If the Herd could start 2-2 with the early schedule, and that means winning one at WVU, K-State or UT, this could be a special season. Stealing one in Morgantown, Manhattan or Knoxville would be a confidence builder for the youngsters on the Herd and signal a return to greatness to the upper classmen. If Marshall could go 3-2 at home, it would only take 3-4 on the road to qualify for another bowl trip for Marshall. Key games include the UCF game on Wednesday night on ESPN2, usually not a great crowd night. It could really send a signal to C-USA if Marshall comes out of the Conference USA opener with a win over the defending East champs. Other wins are possible at SMU, at UAB, Memphis, Tulane and at East Carolina. It will be tough to win over UTEP, even in Huntington, unless they suffer another late-season meltdown, and at Southern Miss in the finale will really be tough. Let's say 6-6 and a trip to the New Orleans Bowl for the Herd, where Marshall begins a new winning season streak with a win over a Sun Belt team. See you at "The Joan" in August!

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