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Marshall comes to town for one last non-conference game before the Hokies play eight straight games against ACC opponents.
Marshall should be a 3-0 football team right now. They fumbled on their first two possessions against Ohio, which handed the Bobcats an easy touchdown. They also managed to misfield a kickoff later in the game, then kick the ball in the back of the endzone, where Ohio fell on it for another touchdown. The Thundering Herd lost that game 34-31 in Athens, despite outgaining the Bobcats 482-335.
It had to be a very disappointing loss for head coach Doc Holliday, his staff and the Marshall players. They were expecting to come to Blacksburg as a 3-0 football team, and that’s exactly what they should be. Instead they are 2-1 with a loss to themselves.
You may or may not have respect for Marshall’s talent level. After all, they are a small team from West Virginia and they are in Conference USA. However, once you finish reading this preview I think your respect for their talent level will be higher. They have a number of guys on both sides of the ball who had major BCS offers coming out of high school, but they ended up at Marshall because of grades.
The Virginia Connection
Marshall has a number of players in the two-deep who are from the state of Virginia.
LG Josh Lovell (6-6, 309, r-Jr.): Lovell is from Gloucester, VA, and he splits time at left guard.
TE Eric Frohnaphel (6-6, 227, Jr.: Frohnaphel plays a lot at TE. He is from Stafford.
TE Devon Johnson (6-1, 240, So.): Johnson is from Richlands, and he is the #3 TE.
QB Blake Frohnaphel (6-6, 225, r-So.): The twin brother of Eric, he backs up Rakeem Cato.
RB Essray Taliaferro (5-9, 183, r-Sr.): The senior back starts for Marshall. He’s from Ashburn.
NT Brandon Sparrow (6-3, 305, Sr.): Marshall’s starting nose tackle is from Bedford.
DT James Rouse (6-5, 258, r-Sr.): Rouse hails from up I-81 in Harrisonburg.
Those guys will all be fired up to play the Hokies, especially the local guys like Devon Johnson, Brandon Sparrow and James Rouse.
Rakeem Cato and the Marshall Offense
The best quarterback in the country you may not have heard of is Marshall’s Rakeem Cato (6-0, 188, Jr.). He’s smallish, but he’s a very good natural passer. Cato came out of Miami Central High School, where he put up big numbers and led his team to a state championship, but his size prevented him from landing a lot of scholarship offers. Despite his lack of size, Cato was a starter for the Thundering Herd as a true freshman in 2011, and blew up as a sophomore last season.
Cato started as a true freshman against Virginia Tech in 2011. He went 17-of-33 for 245 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. I remember being impressed with his poise. It was very impressive for a true freshman against a Bud Foster defense.
After getting experience as a freshman, Cato led the country in passing yards per game in 2012, averaging 350.1. His 2012 and 2013 numbers combined look like this: 474-of-691 (71.5%) for 5,049 yards, 44 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That’s a QB rating of 147.2.
Cato doesn’t have a Logan Thomas type of arm, but it’s better than Shane Carden’s, and he’s an accurate passer. He can also improvise, run for first downs, and he can complete passes on the run. For a better look at Cato, here’s his 2012 highlight film.
2011 WVU: 15-of-21 for 115 yards, 0 TDs and 0 INTs (first college game as a true freshman)
2011 VT: 17-of-33 for 245 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT
2011 Louisville: 18-of-30 for 236 yards, 2 TD and 0 INT
2012 WVU: 38-of-54 for 413 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT
2012 Purdue: 45-of-68 for 439 yards, 5 TD and 3 INT
That’s a total of 133-of-206 for 1,448 yards with 10 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. That’s a 134.8 QB rating.
Cato brought his favorite target from Miami Central with him to Huntington. Tommy Shuler (5-7, 190, Jr.) lacks size, but he certainly doesn’t lack production. He caught 110 passes (a school record) last season, with 1,338 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 19 passes for 200 yards in a single game at Purdue. That’s big-time production, even if Shuler doesn’t face BCS competition week in and week out.
Shuler has been Cato’s top target so far this year as well, catching 23 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns through the first three games. With these two guys both being juniors, they have the potential to shatter a lot of records together before their careers are over.
Demetrius Evans (5-11, 198, Sr.), Davonte Allen (6-2, 203, r-So.) and Devon Smith (5-7, 155, r-Sr.) are Cato’s other top targets at wide receiver. However, the next biggest threat in the passing game (after Shuler) is probably tight end Gator Hoskins (6-2, 244, Sr.). Gator is from Gainesville, FL – the home of the Florida Gators. Lindy’s rates him the #6 NFL prospect in Conference USA, and they project him to be a fullback at the pro level.
Hoskins was a quarterback in high school, and he signed with Marshall as a 200-lb safety. He’s worked out quite well as a tight end. I know some folks will have a hard time believing that a guy at Marshall would start for Virginia Tech, but Hoskins would start at either tight end or fullback for the Hokies, and be one of our top offensive weapons in the process. He caught 35 passes for a year ago for the Thundering Herd, and you can see his highlight video below.
LT Gage Niemeyer (6-6, 297, Sr.): Niemeyer is a JUCO transfer who started five games last season and all games in 2013.
LG Sabastian Johansson (6-6, 284, r-So.): Johansson is from Sweden, and this is the first time he is seeing major playing time at Marshall. Josh Lovell (6-6, 309, r-Jr.) is listed as his co-starter.
C Chris Jasperse (6-4, 289, r-Jr.): Jasperse was on the CUSA All-Freshman team in 2011, and the starting center in 2012. He is from Greensboro (NC) power Page High School.
RG Alex Schooler (6-7, 303, r-Sr.): Schooler is an offensive guard with plenty of experience in the program.
RT Garrett Scott (6-5, 294, Sr.): Scott has started at guard and tackle throughout his career at Marshall. He’s a very experienced player.
Jasperse is the best player up front for Marshall, being projected by many as an All-CUSA offensive lineman in 2013. LT Jordan Jeffries (6-8, 310, r-Sr.) started every game a season ago, but for whatever reason is listed second string this year.
This is one of Conference USA’s better offensive lines, but it’s nothing the Hokies shouldn’t be able to deal with. Tech recorded five sacks against Marshall in 2011 (including 2.5 from J.R. Collins and 1.5 from James Gayle), and limited the Thundering Herd to six rushing yards and 0.3 yards per carry.
Marshall will use three running backs against the Hokies.
Essray Taliaferro (5-9, 183, r-Sr.): 38 carries, 160 yards, 4.2 ypc, 2 TDs
Steward Butler (5-9, 178, r-So.): 31 carries, 282 yards, 9.1 ypc, 3 TDs
Kevin Grooms (5-10, 168, r-So.): 19 carries, 86 yards, 4.5 ypc, 1 TD
Virginia Tech offered Kevin Grooms out of high school, and he verbally committed to the Miami Hurricanes. He also had offers from Florida, Florida State, Louisville, and other major programs. However, he was a non-qualifier and he ended up at Marshall. Tailback Steward Butler also held offers from Arizona State and West Virginia, but he didn’t qualify and he ended up at Marshall.
The Thundering Herd have averaged 214.7 yards per game on the ground through the first three games of the season. They are a much more balanced football team than East Carolina was a week ago, and overall I think they have more weapons on offense.
The Marshall Defense
Marshall’s defense was awful last season. Check out the amount of points they allowed on a game by game basis:
West Virginia: 69
Western Carolina: 24
Southern Miss: 24
As you would expect, head coach Doc Holliday decided to make a change at defensive coordinator, brining in Chuck Heater. Heater and Scot Loeffler are very familiar with each other. Heater was co-defensive coordinator at Florida when Loeffler was the quarterbacks coach there, and he was also the defensive coordinator at Temple in 2011 while Loeffler served as the offensive coordinator. Heater is also a Michigan grad, along with Loeffler.
The new hire has resulted in a big improvement so far. Here’s how Marshall’s defense has performed from a total yardage standpoint in their first three games with Heater as defensive coordinator:
Miami of Ohio: 239
The competition hasn’t been great, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for the Thundering Herd. If they can get a reliable defense on the field with their dominating offense, they will be a tough out in Conference USA.
The Marshall defensive line has made big strides since last season. They held Ohio to just 1.6 yards per carry last week, and that’s a Bobcat team that ran all over Penn State the previous season. It starts on the inside with their defensive tackles, who are coached by former Virginia Tech All-American defensive tackle J.C. Price.
Price has a couple of Virginians to work with. Brandon Sparrow (6-3, 305, Sr.) mans the nose tackle position for the Thundering Herd. He had nine TFL and five sacks a year ago, and he made seven tackles against Virginia Tech back in 2011 when he was a sophomore. A graduate of Liberty-Bedford outside of Lynchburg, you can bet he’ll be fired up to play against his hometown team. Keep an eye on #96 on Saturday.
The other interior lineman is James Rouse (6-5, 268, r-Sr.), who is from Harrisonburg. He is a little undersized for a defensive tackle, but he has four TFL so far this year, and he also leads Marshall with 2.5 sacks. Rouse has missed most of the last two seasons with injuries, but now that he’s finally healthy he is making an impact on the Marshall program.
The Thundering Herd also have quality depth on the inside. Jarquez Samuel (6-4, 276, r-So.) is in his second year in the playing rotation. Steve Dillon (6-3, 267, r-So.) is from California and originally signed with Southern Cal out of high school. He also had offers from Arizona State, Cal, UCLA, Oregon State and many other west coast teams. However, he didn’t qualify, and he ended up at Marshall as a non-qualified athlete. After redshirting, Dillon got himself eligible and now he is a big part of Marshall’s defensive line.
Marshall’s defensive ends have plenty of experience. Alex Bazzie (6-1, 228, r-Sr.) had nine TFL and two sacks a year ago and started every game. Jeremiah Taylor (6-4, 255, Sr.) was a team captain as a junior last year while recording 8.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks. Ra’Shawde Myers (6-4, 246, r-Jr.) backs up at both defensive end spots, and this is his third season in the playing rotation.
The Thundering Herd routinely employ a nickel defense, which means they only have two linebackers on the field.
MLB Jermaine Holmes (5-11, 243, Jr.): Holmes has been in the starting lineup since his freshman season. He had 13.5 tackles for loss last year, and he already has five through three games this season. He had offers from Illinois and Louisville coming out of high school.
WLB Neville Hewitt (6-2, 220, Jr.): Hewitt is a JUCO in his first season at Marshall. He leads the team with 19 tackles thus far. Hewitt had an offer from South Carolina coming out of high school.
Look for five defensive backs on the field for Marshall:
CB Monterius Lovett (5-11, 171, r-Sr.): Lovett has been in the playing rotation since he was a r-freshman, and he’s the most experienced defensive back on this team. He returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown against Gardner-Webb.
CB Darryl Roberts (5-11, 176, r-Jr.): Roberts played a lot as a freshman and a sophomore, but redshirted in 2012. He’s back in the starting lineup in 2013, and he and Lovett combine to form a duo of very experienced corners.
FS Taj Letman (6-2, 186, r-So.): Letman is another JUCO who is in his first season at Marshall. Arizona, Baylor came in and offered near the end of his recruitment, but he stayed true to his commitment to Marshall. Rivals also lists him with offers from Georgia, Kentucky and Nebraska (but I question that).
SS D.J. Hunter (6-0, 202, r-So.): Hunter was a Sporting News Freshman All-American last season. He racked up 102 tackles from an outside linebacker position. This year he’s playing strong safety, but his linebacker experience means that he can be used up around the line in running situations. Hunter was a 4-star recruit with offers from WVU, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and many others. However, he was arrested for shooting a 15-year old in the face with a BB gun and lost his chance to play for a major program.
Nickel Corey Tindal (5-9, 173, r-Fr.): Tindal spent the 2011 season at the Atlanta Sports Academy before enrolling at Marshall. He has 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery in his young career.
Chuck Heater has done a great job with improving this defense from the 2012 season. However, he does have some pretty good talent to work with. The Thundering Herd feature players on their defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary who held offers from major BCS schools. However, academics or off the field incidents led them all to Huntington.
Marshall has a very good field goal kicker in Justin Haig (5-8, 182, r-Jr.). He is 4-of-5 on his field goal attempts this season after going 13-of-16 a year ago. He doesn’t have the strongest leg around, but he’s very accurate. He was also a perfect 60-of-60 on his PATs in 2012.
Punter Tyler Williams (6-0, 195, So.) was a Freshman All-American a season ago, and he was also a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award for the nation’s best punter. He averaged 45.19 yards per punt, and he had 13 punts of 50+ yards. He has a 66 yarder and a 65 yarder to his credit during his short career.
Tailback Steward Butler and wide receiver DeAndre Reaves return the kicks, with Butler averaging 22 yards per return and Reaves going for 25.7. Reaves is yet another Virginian, from Sterling. Overall, Butler is one of the most dangerous players on this Marshall team.
Devon Smith will likely handle the punt return duties, and Reaves could see some action back there as well. Between those two guys, Marshall has averaged 8.9 yards per return.
Marshall is a 3-0 football team that happens to be 2-1. In fact, they beat a pretty solid Marshall team last Saturday! All jokes aside, the Thundering Herd have improved their talent level under Doc Holliday, and the move to hire Chuck Heater has improved their coaching. Isn’t that a great name for a defensive coordinator? It could only be better if he was a closer in the Major Leagues.
The Thundering Herd have a more explosive offense than East Carolina. Their blocking schemes are more complicated, and they will test the Tech defense vertically as well as horizontally. ECU, by comparison, had very simple blocking schemes (according to Bud Foster), and they could only attack horizontally because of physical limitations at the quarterback position.
Defensively, there might not be a more improved unit anywhere in the country. The talent level of Marshall’s defense has improved, they are tougher in the trenches, and they will attack offenses. The Hokies have 12 sacks on the season, which is tied for second in the country. Marshall isn’t far behind, with nine sacks. Their competition level hasn’t been great, but they have seen a lot of improvement since last season.
I think that Marshall’s secondary is very attackable, and this defense doesn’t have the size of the ECU defense in the front seven either. I don’t see Tech struggling as much to run the football against the Herd as they did against the Pirates.
I don’t see the Tech offense dominating, but I think we’ll see some steady improvement. Despite the weapons possessed by the Marshall offense, the Virginia Tech defense will hold up their end of the deal, and the Hokies will win.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Marshall 10
Will Stewart’s Take: Marshall sounds pretty good on paper, and as Chris noted, they’ve got some physically talented players on their roster. This is a game Virginia Tech could lose, because Marshall’s got defensive talent comparable to ECU, but they’ve got a better quarterback who can make throws that ECU’s Shane Carden couldn’t. The Hokies could force Carden into a situation where he had to make throws that were difficult for him; Cato isn’t as limited.
It’s fair to compare this game to the ECU game. In that case, the Hokies need to be more productive on offense (and special teams), because I think Marshall will be more productive than ECU was. But that’s the plan for Virginia Tech on offense: improve at least a little, week by week.
Being more productive on offense for VT means being more productive in the running game. The primary problem for VT running the ball against ECU was the interior of East Carolina’s defensive line, which manhandled VT’s interior OL. The question is, will Marshall be able to do the same? We won’t know how good Marshall’s DTs are until the game is underway.
If the Hokies want to be competitive for the Coastal Division title, the offense and special teams will need to take a step forward, starting with this game.
Defensively, I think there’s going to be more pressure on the Hokie defensive backs than there has been all season. Barring an unforeseen letdown, the Tech defensive line will be able to pressure Cato, and when he breaks the pocket and the wide receivers break off their routes and start freelancing, the DBs will need to stay disciplined and stay on the receivers. We’re going to find out more about Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller, two guys who have been very impressive so far.
I also think that Virginia Tech fans need to step up their game this Saturday. A noon game against Marshall doesn’t make anyone’s skirt fly up, but the truth is that Marshall’s got some weapons, and they can beat the Hokies. Virginia Tech is what they is: very good defensively, and a work in progress offensively. When the D is on the field, Marshall needs to hear some old-school Hokie fan noise.
I think this one will either be a close win, or a loss. If it’s a big win by the Hokies, that’s a good sign of progress heading into the shortened Georgia Tech week.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Marshall 18