By JOHN RABY, AP Sports Writer
Marshall coach Doc Holliday doesn’t want to see a repeat of last year’s floundering defense.
While Marshall thrived behind quarterback Rakeem Cato, opposing offenses ran up 43 points per game on the Thundering Herd, which allowed at least 50 points five times.
Chris Rippon resigned as defensive coordinator a day after Marshall finished the season 5-7. The widely traveled Chuck Heater, who was on Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida along with Holliday last decade, was hired by Holliday from Temple to try to straighten out a unit that returns seven starters.
“Offensively we took some strides. We got better a year ago,” said Holliday, Marshall’s fourth-year coach. “Defensively, we didn’t. We’ve got to make sure that happens this year.”
He’ll try to turn things around with Heater, who’s at his 12th school in a college coaching career that began in 1976.
Heater earned two national championship rings while on Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida and another in 1988 at Notre Dame.
“Seeing from last year to this year, you can tell the attitude of the defense changed,” said Marshall defensive end Jeremiah Taylor. “When somebody makes a play, you see the whole sideline up and cheering, rooting them on.”
Marshall has yet to earn a berth in the Conference USA championship game since joining the league in 2005. The key to getting there this season could loom in the regular-season finale Nov. 29 at home against East Division favorite East Carolina.
Marshall opens the season at home Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio).
Here are five things to know as Marshall looks for its third winning season in five years:
1. CAN CATO CLICK?: Cato’s 4,201 passing yards last season were nearly 1,100 yards more than any other Conference USA quarterback and were the third most in school history. Cato’s 37 touchdown passes last year were two shy of Chad Pennington’s school record 39 set in 1997. With a veteran offensive line protecting him, Cato looks to have another great season. “He has a totally understanding of what we’re trying to get done offensively,” Holliday said.
2. TOP TARGETS: Despite the loss of Aaron Dobson to the NFL, Cato has several solid returnees in wideout Tommy Shuler and tight end Gator Hoskins. Shuler, who’s returning from offseason foot surgery, amassed a school-record 110 catches for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns last year, while Hoskins had 35 catches for 374 yards and a team-high 10 scores. Penn State transfer Devon Smith is eligible after sitting out last season. He caught 25 passes for 402 yards in 2011 for the Nittany Lions.
3. WHERE’S THE D?: Marshall lost four games a year ago by seven points or less, and one of the reasons may have been several injuries in the secondary. Cornerback Darryl Roberts missed all of last season recovering from a broken ankle, and safety A.J. Leggett sat out with a shoulder injury. Third-leading tackler D.J. Hunter at safety joins them in a depth-filled secondary. The line is led by Taylor, who led Marshall with 5.5 sacks and was ranked fifth in tackles with 54. Fourth-leading tackler Jermaine Holmes is a key at linebacker.
4. NOT SO FRIENDLY HOME: Marshall is 11-6 at home under Holliday but went just 3-3 last season. There was a time when Joan C. Edwards Stadium was a virtual lock for a home win. The Thundering Herd went 91-7 there from 1990 to 2004.
5. COACHES IN FLUX: In addition to Heater, Marshall added five other assistant coaches for this season: Adam Fuller at linebacker, Sean Cronin at defensive end, Mike Furrey at wide receiver, Thomas Brown at running back, and Alex Mirabal on the offensive line. Several veteran assistants also took on new responsibilities, and Scott Sinclair was hired as Marshall’s fifth football strength and conditioning coach in the past two years.
Predicted order of finish in Conference USA: Second in East Division.