Thundering Herd preview

Mark Snyder has fond memories of Knoxville. As an Ohio State assistant football coach, he was visiting with Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis in the spring of 2005 when he got a call to interview for the vacant Marshall head coaching job.

It was the call of a lifetime.

``It's always been a dream of mine to get a chance to come back home,'' Snyder said. ``It's great to be home. I've tried to hire some guys that played here that have the same goals and dreams I have – and that's to take this thing to the next level.''

It won't be easy. Less than 10 years ago, Marshall was playing in Division 1-AA. Playing well, mind you, racking up national championships in 1996 and 1999.

But the difference in 1-AA and 1-A is much more significant than one letter. It's speed, it's athleticism, it's depth, it's talent.

Marshall made the jump more successfully than any program, however, joining the Mid-American Conference, winning conference titles and playing in bowl games.

With that success came expectations. These 1-A bullies weren't so bad after all.

But then came last season. Then came reality. Then came a 4-7 record for a first-year coach.

It was a tough season for Snyder.

``Last year was a learning experience, that I can tell you, for me and the players,'' Snyder said. ``It's been a long time since I was part of a four-win season, and it's been a long time around here, also. We went through some growing pains.''

The most painful was a 21-19 loss to Kansas State. Marshall was down by two points late in the fourth quarter, but drove inside the K-State 20-yard line. Rather than take the safe route and kick a field goal, Marshall threw a pass. It was intercepted. End the game. Start the second guessing.

``I haven't been through a game like that and I've been coaching for 16 years,'' Snyder said.

Snyder said the headsets for Kansas State went out, and, being gracious to Wildcats coach Bill Snyder, Mark Snyder turned off his head sets. That led to miscommunication in the final minutes.

``That was painful,'' Mark Snyder said. ``It stung me as much as any game I've ever been a part of. We learned from it and moved on. I don't ever want to be a part of another game like that again.''

Snyder said that loss might have affected his team the rest of the season. He isn't sure because he didn't know the team that well. He was hired in the spring, and didn't get a chance to implement his system until August. That took its toll.

``The whole first year was just a haze because of the timing of the hire,'' Snyder said.

Year Two shouldn't be so foggy. Snyder's system is in place and he's got 19 starters returning, 10 on offense.

``I think we're a little bit better,'' he said. ``How much, I don't know.''

He'll find out soon enough. Marshall, which is now in Conference USA, opens the season at West Virginia, which won the Big East last year and whipped Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. After hosting Hofstra, the Thundering Herd travels Sept. 16 to Kansas State and Sept. 23 to Tennessee.

``It's a tough schedule,'' Snyder said, ``but that's what makes college football exciting.''

Marshall has two quarterbacks who completed 114 passes last season: Bernard Morris and Jimmy Skinner. Morris is more mobile – he's arguably the fourth fastest player on the team -- and likely will start. Skinner understands the offense better, but doesn't have the arm strength or escapability.

``I don't like having two quarterbacks,'' Snyder said. ``But if that's what we've got to do, that's what we'll do.''

Marshall has a big-time running back in Ahmad Bradshaw, who transferred from Virginia after getting in trouble. Bradshaw rushed for 997 yards and caught 56 passes last season.

``He's the best player on our team,'' Snyder said.

Snyder, who has a Big Ten background, having coached with Jim Tressell at Ohio State and Glenn Mason at Minnesota, would like to utilize Bradshaw even more this season.

``I think our kids know how to throw the ball around here,'' Snyder said. ``I'm not sure we know how to run the ball very well. So we spent a lot of time (running in the spring.)''

Nine defensive starters return, but three defensive backs with starting experience are gone. Snyder expects the defense to be much improved. He said Marshall's scheme is similar to Chavis' at Tennessee.

Marshall has three players with Knoxville ties: kicker Ian O'Connor and offensive linemen Daniel Inman and Zane Bruhin. O'Connor, a senior, hit 7 of 14 field-goal attempts last year and handled kickoff duties.

Inman, a junior, missed the spring because of injuries but started every game at right guard in 2005. His backup is Bruhin, who Snyder feels will be a good player for the Herd. Bruhin is a sophomore.

``All three of those guys will play for us at Neyland Stadium,'' Snyder said.

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