Seems like old times for Herd, Miami
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Dozens and dozens of college football teams are taking the field for the first time, and all are eager to show their practice and conditioning work of the last nine or so months.
Those around the Marshall camp are sensing a different atmosphere, an expanded eagerness mixed with a dash of anxiety. The Thundering Herd is riding a mixture of bitter disappointment over the 5-7 record of 2012, and the ratcheted-up expectations for this autumn.
Adding to all that is the opponent, Miami (Ohio). It has been nine years since Marshall and Miami last played, but the fans here don't forget the highlights and infamous moments. Considering the teams' desire to put last year behind, that rivalry could be rekindled on the opening kickoff.
Today's 7 p.m. game also represents a rarity for Marshall - a season opener played at Joan C. Edwards Stadium against an FBS opponent. The only other time that has happened in MU's Division I-A/FBS era was 2004, against Troy.
Much like Marshall, the RedHawks aren't happy about the way their season ended. They lost six of their last seven games to finish 4-8, doing so despite having one of the best pass-catch combinations in the Mid-American Conference.
Their defense struggled from beginning to end, but looked almost stout compared to Marshall's porous bunch. After the Herd's 65-59 double-overtime loss at East Carolina, MU coach Doc Holliday allowed coordinator Chris Rippon to travel back to Huntington with the team, but that's about it.
From the Herd's coaches and players to the patrons in the new sky suites on the stadium's west side, the top issue is the same: the defense under new coordinator Chuck Heater. Expectations there might be unrealistic, but it's almost impossible for the Herd not to improve on that side.
"I feel like this year we're going to be fine," said safety D.J. Hunter. "I've got faith in my D-line, J.T. [Jeremiah Taylor], [Alex] Bazzie, [Brandon] Sparrow, Ra'Shawde Myers; I've got faith they're going to bring pressure on the quarterback.
"I feel like it's going to be a good year for us. With [Heater] coming in with all his experience, I think we're going to be better this year."
Miami didn't switch defensive coordinators, but the RedHawks are trying to create a different culture on that side, as well. They know full well this isn't an easy season opener to do that.
Marshall's head-spinning offense is back with Rakeem Cato at the controls, and he is expected to put up another round of big numbers - something near the 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns of 2012 would be a start.
Cato has a veteran line, veteran running backs, a more physical tight-end crew and his old pal Tommy Shuler. How he and offensive coordinator Bill Legg integrate younger receivers will provide another of the day's subplots.
Miami coach Don Treadwell worries that the Herd will do just fine this year - and tonight.
"Overall, Marshall is a very, very explosive team, really across the board," he said. "On both sides of the ball, special teams, you name it. Many people that watch Marshall, it's a no-brainer - their offense is very explosive. Every game, they demonstrate their ability to move the football, they have a lot of athletes.
"But certainly, the catalyst is Cato, the quarterback. In my opinion, he's just phenomenal."
Miami will bring a not-so-new quarterback in Austin Boucher, a mobile sort who will stress Heater's 4-2-5 defense. Boucher operates behind two veteran linemen and a top receiver in Dawan Scott, but has several new starters. Two redshirt freshmen, a lineman and receiver Rokeem Williams, are among those.
"You'll kind of see a combination this year, across the board, of key veterans and a lot of youth, but then youth with experience," Treadwell said.
Marshall has some young-but-experienced players on its two-deep chart, which is littered by designated co-starters. But it also has a large, seemingly deep and talented senior class for once, players with long memories of games gone awry and seasons of what might have been.
That definitely includes the season that fizzled out nine long, long months ago.
"It's been so long from that ECU game, all the way to now," Bazzie said. "To end your season not where you want it to be, that sour taste is going to stay in your mouth for a while. And it's still there."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.