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Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Preview: No. 76 Marshall Thundering Herd

FAIL!

Today, we’re 70+ days away from the kickoff of the 2012 college football season. As such, we’ll preview the No. 76 team in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews, the Marshall Thundering Herd.

Coach Doc Holliday– yes, seriously– enters his third season at Marshall with increased expectations after a 7-6 finish in 2011. With 13 total returners (8 offense, 5 defense) the Herd won’t be one of the more experienced teams in Conference USA, but they also won’t be lacking in quality young talent.

Impact Players

Offense

Sophomore Rakeem Cato will return under center this fall for Marshall and will be looking to improve upon a 2,059 yard and 15 touchdown season in 2011. Cato’s accuracy and decision-making will need to be seriously improved– he threw 11 picks and had a 59.9% completion percentage last season–but has reportedly seen marked improvement during spring practice.

Marshall only has six seniors on the entire roster, but luckily enough for Cato, three of these seniors are in his wide receiving corps. The 6’3″, 204 pound Aaron Dobson is the leader of the unit, and likely early-round NFL draft pick, and comes off of a 668 yard, 12 touchdown performance in 2011. Dobson will be looked upon to make plays all season long for the Herd’s offense to be efficient and effective.

Senior Antavious Wilson (462 yards, 1 touchdown in 2011) should also get some nice looks as teams do their best to bottle up and slow down Dobson.

Running backs Tron Martinez and Travon Van will carry the majority of the load for the Herd’s rushing game. Between them the duo rushed for 1,306 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2011. Similar numbers, augmented by Kevin Grooms and Stew Butler, would be a big help for a young offensive unit that cannot focus solely on the passing game.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Chris Rippon lost one player whose production will take the production of many to replace: 2011 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and No. 59 draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, Vinny Curry.

Curry finished with 77 tackles and 11 TFLs in 2011, a number which isn’t easily replaced.

Senior linebacker Devin Arrington will be the man tasked with increased production on the second-level and should become the vocal leader of the Herd’s defensive unit. Sophomore linebacker Jermaine Holmes will also be called upon to make some plays and take the head off of Arrington in big games.

The team’s defensive line unit may in fact be its greatest strength. Junior end Jeremiah Taylor (45 tackles and 4 TFL in 2011) will anchor the line at defensive end, and could be book-ended by Ra’Shawde Meyers who saw limited action in 2011, but impressed the Marshall coaching staff during spring workouts.

Defensive tackles Jacquez Smith and former USC commit Steve Dillon will set the tone up front for Marshall in their standard 4-3 set. A.J. Leggett and D.J. Hunter could both be impact players in the secondary for the Herd this fall, helping pitch in and allow a largely inexperienced defensive unit to hold up its end of the bargain.

Schedule

There’s no easing into the 2012 slate as the Herd take on their biggest in-state rival, the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown on September 1. The Mountaineers have been chosen by some to take home the Big 12 crown in their first year as a league member, and will be locked and loaded to show what they can do.

Things ease off somewhat in Week 2 with a home visit from Western Carolina and a Week 3 visit from the RS No. 82 Ohio Bobcats. A 2-0 or 1-1 split over these first two games would be reasonable to expect from the Herd headed into the first Conference USA game of 2012 in Houston against the RS No. 100 Rice Owls on September 22nd, and then wrapping up the first third against the Purdue Boilermakers.

A return bowl trip– albeit to a lower-tier bowl– is to be expected from this year’s Marshall squad and 6-7 wins is likely again the plateau– at least for one more season.

Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

You can follow him on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.