A.J. handed the keys
HUNTINGTON - Perhaps most telling about the benching of quarterback Rakeem Cato in favor of A.J. Graham was not Marshall coach Doc Holliday's explanation of that move.
Maybe it was his explanation of the situation at running back.
A question was posed later in Holliday's press conference Tuesday about the running-back duo of Tron Martinez and Travon Van, and whether Martin Ward and Essray Taliaferro could get some carries.
Holliday's answer, in part: "Tron and Travon - and Travon, he's nursing a couple of little [injuries] - those are our best backs, and we're going to play them."
A few minutes before, Holliday announced that Graham will start in the Thundering Herd's upcoming game against Rice. The choice of words was different, a departure from how the second-year coach usually describes personnel moves.
"We've got certain standards and expectations that we expect every player to live up to," Holliday said. "And if they don't, they sit and watch with me and the other guy plays. And A.J. will start Saturday."
Holliday did not want to go into whether the move was prompted by Cato's play last weekend at Central Florida, his conduct on the sideline or a combination of things. But Bright House Sports Network cameras did capture Cato in an agitated state.
Cato struggled in the 16-6 loss, going 11-of-29 for 87 yards. He lost one fumble early in the second quarter, but it did not result in UCF points. He did not throw an interception, an accomplishment of sorts in the relentless rain.
He was plagued by an ineffective running attack and a substantial number of dropped passes. The latter was understandable - the wet pigskin was as slippery as, well, a wet pig's skin.
Whatever the reason for the change, Graham is the man, and the sophomore will try to replicate his brief, shining moment from 2010. In a 41-16 loss at Southern Mississippi, Graham went 10-of-12 for 95 yards but was injured while leading what would be the Herd's only touchdown drive.
A high ankle sprain kept him out the rest of the season and still hampered the Tallahassee, Fla., native in the spring. In August, Graham beat out Eddie Sullivan and Blake Frohnapfel for the No. 2 spot, riding his strong arm and ability to execute zone-read running plays.
Graham said the change was announced Sunday at the team's meetings.
"It just puts a lot of pressure on the defense when there's a quarterback who can run as well as throw," Graham said. "Make right decisions, and basically putting more pressure on the defense.
"I've been running [the zone read] since high school, and it's no different here, just a couple of tweaks here and there with the way Coach [Bill] Legg runs it, wants it run. For the most part, I think I can get it done."
Holliday said he is not giving up on Cato, saying he could even enter the Rice game.
"Rakeem Cato's going to be an excellent quarterback," Holliday said. "There's a chance he'll play Saturday; we'll see how it goes. I think he'll be an excellent quarterback here before his career's over."
Graham played the fourth quarter this season in Ohio, going 2-of-8 for 43 yards, with a long of 33.
Defensive end Vinny Curry is taking bereavement leave following the death of his mother early Monday morning. He is back home in New Jersey, and his plans are uncertain for Saturday.
Curry's mother had been ill for some time.
"I can't say if he's going to play or not at this point," Holliday said. "They're making arrangements right now for her funeral, and our thoughts and prayers are with Vinny. We're going to support Vinny on whatever he decides to. We've got things set up to where we can get him back here afterwards, once they make the arrangements."
On the injury front, Holliday hopes to have left tackle Ryan Tillman back, but Jordan Jeffries will prepare for a possible first start. He said defensive tackle Marques Aiken's ankle is fine, though he is still fighting through the nagging pain of his hernia.
The return of safety D.J. Hunter, once ticketed as a starting safety beside Omar Brown, remains a question mark.
"He's getting closer. I don't know what the timeline is," Holliday said. "I'd love to sit here and tell you he's going to play. He needs practice, and he's going to go and practice today. We've got to make the right decision, from our doctors and our trainers, that we can't set that kid back."
Holliday acknowledged the Herd's offense must get better - quite a bit better after a 130-yard effort at UCF - but defended the overall scheme.
"Our offense is very similar, as far as our philosophy goes, to Southern Miss. Southern Miss is 18th in America right now in total offense," Holliday said. "A lot of that has to do with [the fact that] they have a fourth-year quarterback. That's their quarterback, they've got good skill kids; a lot of things go into that.
"They run the same plays, we run the same routes. Are we doing it perfectly? No, we're not. We've got to get better."
Back to the Ward-Taliaferro issue. The two have combined for six carries, all in mop-up time during the rout by Ohio, but Holliday is sticking with the Martinez-Van rotation.
But as the coach points out, Ward doesn't play a bit role with the team.
"Martin Ward, he's our special-team captain. I named him that last week," Holliday said. "He's done a tremendous job, he's got a great attitude, he's playing on all four special teams and I like what he's all about."
The Herd reportedly secured a commitment from Cameron Dees, a 6-foot-2, 280-pound center from Seffner, Fla. Rivals gives him three stars and ranks him 16th among centers.
Seffner is east of Tampa, a slight departure from Holliday's recruiting wheelhouse of the Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale-Miami corridor. Dees' school, Armwood High, is 6-0 and ranked sixth in the USA Today Super 25 Poll and second in Max Preps' Xcellent 25 Writers' Poll.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.