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NCAA Football Conference USA Football

Rant Sports College Football Rankings: No. 45 Marshall Thundering Herd

Rakeem Cato

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With the departure of East Carolina to the AAC, the Marshall Thundering Herd are now the top team in Conference USA. With the return of its best player, quarterback Rakeem Cato, 2014 could be a very special season for head coach Doc Holliday and the Marshall fanbase.

Offense

To say the Marshall offense was efficient in 2013 would be putting it mildly. They were ranked in the top 25 in scoring (42.1 PPG) rushing (205.9 YPG), passing (294.4 YPG) and total offense (500.4 YPG), and what’s scary is that the offense could be better in 2014 as they return six offensive starters from last season.

After passing for 3,916 yards and throwing for 39 touchdowns, Cato is on pace to become Marshall’s most prolific passer, which is a major feat when you consider that he will have passed former Thundering Herd stars Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich in the process.

Breaking the passing record will be that much easier with the return of leading receiver senior Tommy Shuler. Despite only being 5-foot-7, Shuler had 106 receptions for 1,165 yards in 2013, and provides Cato a safety valve in the intermediate passing game.

Joining Shuler as starters will be senior Craig Wilkins and redshirt junior Davonte Allen. Both add a dimension to the Marshall offense that could make them even more potent this season despite the departure of its second and third-leading receiver. One player to keep an eye out for is redshirt freshman Angelo Jean-Louis. The University of Miami transfer already showed glimpses of his potential during the spring game, and will add a deep threat to the offense.

Even with the graduation of leading rusher Essray Taliaferro, the Marshall rushing offense will look to be productive this season. Redshirt juniors Steward ButlerKevin Grooms and Remi Watson will all have the opportunity to win the starting job, with the backups getting their share of carries as well.

After rushing for 765 yards on only 87 carries, Butler has the early lead on starting and has already been named to the watch list for the “College Football Performance Awards Running Back Trophy.”

Defense

The offense gets all the attention, but it will be the defense that will determine how successful Marshall will be in 2014. Led by sixth-year senior defensive tackle James Rouse, the Herd defense saw a dramatic decrease in total points allowed, going from 43.1 in 2012 to 22.9 in 2013.

In addition to the All-CUSA preseason candidate, the Herd also have redshirt senior RaShawde Myers returning to provide a pass rush up front. Despite missing three games, Myers was second on the team in sacks last season (4.5).

In 2013, defensive coordinator Chuck Heater used the 4-2-5 defensive scheme to get more athleticism on the field and even with only using two linebackers, returning seniors Evan McKelveyNeville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes were the leading tacklers. In 2014, Heater will go back to the more conventional 4-3 scheme and will move former safety junior D.J. Hunter to the SAM linebacker position.

Even with moving one of their best defensive backs to a new position, the Thundering Herd still will have a lot of talent at their disposal. Last season’s Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year Corey Tindal returns at one cornerback position and will be joined by the lone senior of the group, Darryl RobertsSophomore A.J. Leggett returns at free safety after leading the team in interceptions (four) in 2013.

Another sophomore, Tiquan Lang, will join him at strong safety after being named starter midway through last season.

Schedule

The non-conference schedule opens with a road game against Miami (Ohio) and sandwiches in two home games against Rhode Island and Ohio before closing with another road game against Akron. Just short of an unfortunate injury or two, there is no reason that Marshall should not be 4-0 heading into the Conference USA opener on the road against Old Dominion.

The only potential obstacle for a perfect 2014 season are the Week 6 and 8 matchups with East Division contenders Middle Tennessee St. and Florida Atlantic. Both games are in the confines of Joan Edwards Stadium, so anything less than victories in both games would be a disappointment.

They avoid the three top teams in the West division: North Texas, Rice and UTSA, and end the season with another home game against Western Kentucky. The soft schedule could hurt the school’s chances at a marquee bowl bid, but if they can generate enough style points in those victories, Marshall could become this year’s UCF.