As the Herd present its encore to the successes of 2014, when the team went 13-1 en route to a Conference USA Championship and subsequent Boca Raton Bowl victory over Northern Illinois, the most significant change comes via the relocation of the Church of Cato from the terrain of Joan C. Edwards Stadium to the foreign borders of the CFL.
Former quarterback, Rakeem Cato’s, impact on the Marshall program needs no embellishment, as he vanquished program passing records at an astronomical rate. Cato’s 2014 statistical line of 267-451, 3,903 yards, 40 touchdowns with a 77.2 overall QBR is more commonly found in Madden video games than in D-1 football. However, with Cato’s graduation, the Michael Birdsong era is officially set to begin on September 6th versus Purdue.
Birdsong (Matoaca, Va.), a James Madison transfer last played in 2013 (after sitting out the 2014 season due to NCAA rules) when he passed for 2,728 yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Birdsong’s massive 6-foot-5, 241-pound frame is a polar opposite from the minuscule dimensions of Cato, and the Herd offense may shift its means of attack in coordination.
The read option will remain a prevalent component of Marshall’s offense, but it may transcend into more of a power attack, in which Birdsong is a greater threat to keep the ball himself and absorb the hits Cato’s body deemed impossible. It is also reasonable to think the passing game could evolve into a more downfield-centric approach, utilizing play-action to setup Birdsong’s ability to drive the ball on intermediate and deep routes.
Such play-action threats will be the secondary concern of opposing defenses in 2015 due to the return of bruising running back Devon Johnson, who eclipsed rushing totals in handfuls last season.
Johnson (Richlands, Va.) amassed 1,767 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2014 despite missing a game and the majority of two others with injuries. He averaged a whopping 8.6 yards per carry, a number typically reserved for speedy scatbacks as opposed to power runners like Johnson. The offense is projected to flow through Johnson’s aggrandized running style even more this season with a new quarterback at the helm and a solid offensive line returning.
Any lauding of said offensive line has to start with pedigreed redshirt senior, Clint Van Horn. The right tackle and recent political science grad, was named to the preseason all-conference team for 2015; no surprise considering Van Horn was voted first-team all-conference in 2014.
Also among the starters returning are redshirt senior Sabastian Johansson (Karlstad, Sweden) and junior Michael Selby (Sandersville, Ga.), the latter of whom will move to center this season to replace the graduated Chris Jasperse. Other graduate losses Trevor Mendelson and Blake Brooks, will be replaced at left tackle and right guard by redshirt sophomore Sandley Jean-Felix (Sunrise, Fla.) and redshirt freshman Nathaniel Devers (Massilon, Ohio), respectively. Fleet of foot redshirt freshman, Fredrice Binot (Lakeland, Fla.) will provide depth as the potentially invaluable swing tackle.
Moving on to the receiving core where the massively productive Tommy Shuler accompanied his BFF, Cato, on the graduation stage. Shuler was a model of consistency throughout his Herd tenure with a knack for getting open, a luxury that will not be afforded to Birdsong.
Instead, Birdsong will look to Davonte Allen (Belle Glade, Fla.), who did not cordially welcome such consistency last season. Allen totaled a healthy 544 receiving yards last season, but on just 22 catches and with the bulk of his yardage coming in three games in which he totaled 393 yards.
Also returning is redshirt sophomore, Deon-Tay McManus (Baltimore, Md.), who caught 26 passes for 422 yards and six touchdowns last season in 10 games. Joining Allen and McManus is slot receiver Hyleck Foster who projects to have a much larger role this season after catching just 18 balls a year ago, but came on late, accruing 10 receptions for 126 yards and a touchdown in the final two conference games before falling mostly silent in the team’s bowl win.
The tight end spot, which has been a strength for the Herd the past two seasons with Gator Hoskins and Eric Frohnapfel, will fall on the shoulders of Georgia Military transfer Emanuel Byrd, a long and lean pass catcher who has the skillset to make an impact on seam routes and pop passes. Receiver/return man Deandre Reeves (Sterling, Va.), junior Justin Hunt (Memphis, Tenn.) and freshman walk-on Nick Mathews (Haymarket, Va.) may factor into the team’s receiving core as well.