By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Expectations are high for the 2014 Marshall University football team. The Thundering Herd is coming off a 10-4 season in 2013, capped by a win over then-ACC member Maryland in the Military Bowl.
Led by All-America candidate Rakeem Cato at quarterback and a strong defense, the Herd should be a preseason Top 25 team and the top contender for the Conference USA East Division championship.
Head coach Doc Holliday sang the praises of his senior signal caller at the Marshall coaches caravan this week in Princeton.
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach a lot of great quarterbacks at the highest level, whether it be Tim Tebow, or Chris Leak, or Philip Rivers at N.C. State,” Holliday said. “He (Cato) is the most competitive kid I’ve ever coached. He goes out every day in practice and tries to win every snap, every down.
“At times it has been a little bit detrimental to him, but he has learned to channel that competitiveness in the right direction. He has become a better leader. He’s got total understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively and I expect him to have a great year.”
In 2013 Cato passed for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns. For his career he has thrown for 10,176 yards and 91 scores. If trends from the three previous years stand, Cato would be in line to become Marshall’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, overtaking Herd greats Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, who both went on to careers in the NFL.
Holliday said that he relishes the fact that expectations are high for this edition of the Thundering Herd, saying he would have it no other way.
“When I took the job, I didn’t want to be anywhere where expectations aren’t extremely high. I don’t want to be the head coach where they are not. We expect to be in the Top 25. We expect to have an excellent football team and we expect to be really good,” Holliday commented. “Now along with those expectations comes responsibility, and it is my responsibility as a head football coach to make sure that we do everything we can to become a better football team every day, that we don’t get complacent, selfish, and remain accountable in all areas because those are three things that can destroy expectations that are high.”
Holliday took the helm of the Marshall program in 2010, replacing Mark Snyder. His first squad finished with a 5-7 record. In 2011 the Herd finished 7-6 with a win in the Beef O’Brady Bowl. The 2012 campaign saw MU play to a 5-7 mark before last year’s 10-4 record and a victory in the Military Bowl. Asked about the rejuvenation of the program, Holliday gave credit to those who put on the pads.
“I think No. 1 is players. It’s a personnel-driven game. When I got there, there just weren’t a whole lot of players that could actually help compete and play for championships,” Holliday said. “I think now we’ve got the personnel where we’ve got a shot at being good.
“We’ve got the highest GPA in the history of Marshall football. Our APR is the highest it’s ever been. There is a direct correlation on what you do off the field and what you do on the field and if I can count on them in the community, off the field, and in the classroom, the chances are I can count on them when it’s fourth-and-one and you’ve got to get a first down to win the game. They’re living right. They’re doing a good job in the classroom. We have no issues at all as far as academics are concerned.
“Overall, I’ve got a bunch of guys now that love football and football is important to them and they’re tough. That’s what it takes to be a good football team.”
Known throughout the college football world as an excellent recruiter, Holliday helped recruit Geno Smith to West Virginia and Tim Tebow to Florida. He said Marshall’s recruiting has improved since his arrival on campus.
“We’ve recruited very well since I’ve been here. I think the one that that helps us recruit better athletes is there’s a lot of people standing still right now,” Holliday said. “If you look around our campus and our athletic facilities we’re building $38 million worth of football facilities. We’re building $150 million worth of academic facilities and got brand new turf on our field.
“We have a new indoor facility that’s the nicest in the state and there’s not a nicer one in the country that what we’re going to walk into in August. (Athletic Director) Mike Hamrick and (university president) Dr. (Stephen) Kopp deserve an awful lot of credit for keeping us moving forward and in the right direction, but kids buy with their eyes.
“We’ve recruited extremely well, but when they walk on campus now, we’re not only going to have a football program that has great tradition, that means a lot to the fan base, but we’re also going to have as good a facility as anywhere in the country to show them when they get there.”
Marshall opens the season Aug. 30 when it visits Miami of Ohio.
— Contact Bob Redd at bredd@bdtonline,