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Smock: MU anticipation 12 years in the making

THERE WAS nothing quite like August 2002 in Huntington, W.Va.

It was my first summer on this job and my first extended exposure to college football two-a-day practices. And that was the last year of legitimate two-a-days, where players fought through two practices a day, every day.

(In contrast, Marshall players face exactly three two-practice days this month.)

Be advised: Much of practice is like watching turf granules settle, especially when the team goes in helmets and shorts. That will be the case in the split-squad workouts today and Tuesday, after which media members will happily trade their souls for anything resembling a “thud.”

But 12 years ago, Marshall football practice was an event. Perhaps the passage of time adds to the human trait of exaggeration, but I do remember this: The afternoon practices on the old auxiliary field were well-attended. The top row of the east side of Marshall University Stadium was populated with fans looking over the edge, getting a better view.

Byron Leftwich was a rock star, receiver Darius Watts was another future NFLer and receiver Josh Davis was building a record-setting career. Coach Bob Pruett knew this was going to be a very good team and he played it to the hilt. When a WBOY-TV crew came from Clarksburg for a morning practice, Pruett bellowed, “Come on down on the field! It’s wiiide open here! Just stay out of the way!”

In this era of Twitter, Facebook and coaches’ general paranoia, those are refreshing memories.

As it turns out, 2002 was a great season for that program, which survived a schnoz-busting at Virginia Tech and a leg injury to Leftwich to finish 12-2 with a postseason ranking. Alas, it was the end of an era at MU.

The rest of the decade was so frustrating and mediocre, it need not be summed up here. The ‘00s ended with a bowl game, a 21-17 win over Ohio on my least favorite bowl date (Dec. 26) in my least favorite city on Earth (Detroit). And it qualified as a big win, as it signaled that incoming coach Doc Holliday’s situation wasn’t desperate, anyway.

Twelve years after that 2002 season, Herd fans finally have a team to embrace again.

It’s a rotten shame that (a) practice crowds probably won’t swell in this two-week open period and that (b) Conference USA isn’t the same as it was from 2005-12. Five of those seasons were wasted under coach Mark Snyder, and the Herd didn’t even get within one game of an East Division leader until 2011.

That’s criminal. And now that the Herd is a defending division champion, Conference USA looks like the Mid-American Conference, only with better road trips.

But that is out of MU’s control and doesn’t matter much.

As I mapped out Sunday morning, a conference championship can open a big, big door for this program.

Let’s put it this way: One preseason magazine, Phil Steele, projects Marshall to play in the Peach Bowl against Auburn — and it’s realistic! A lot more so than theories that the 2002 Herd would be a “BCS buster.”

The usual batch of “ifs” come into play as the first shift takes the field this morning. Will Rakeem Cato, featured in Catoin14.com, take every snap that matters? Will Michael Selby and Blake Brooks hold up at the guard spots? Can any “X” receiver catch (hey to Angelo Jean-Louis)?

Is Ra’Shawde Myers all that at defensive end? Can Gary Thompson turn into Superman at the other end? Every snap?

Will a good tackle rotation develop beside James Roush? Will the secondary be as special as I think it can be? Will this defense minimize the brain-cramp games (Middle Tennessee, Rice) of last year?

Oh, this could be a really fun season at Marshall University.

Holliday is no Pruett, personality-wise, and there’s no Virginia Tech and smack-talking Central Florida on the schedule, but that’s OK.

As in 2002, this season will be an adventure, and it starts in August. On the 4th.

In other words, this morning. 9:45 to be exact. It will be worth watching.

Reach Doug Smock at dougsmock@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him on Twitter @dougsmock.


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