Column: Spring practice ushers in new era

The 2015 Marshall University football team starts drills during its first spring practice Tuesday at the Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Just 91 days after the Thundering Herd walked off Florida Atlantic University’s field with the Boca Raton Bowl trophy, a new chapter in the program’s history opened Tuesday.

The Marshall University football team began its spring camp with the first of 15 practices that will conclude with the annual Green and White spring game April 25.

There were some familiar faces like DeAndre Reaves—whose 93-yard kick return for a touchdown swung the tide of the Boca Raton Bowl and new faces like quarterbacks Chase Litton (freshman) and Michael Birdsong (redshirt junior) who will both be a part of the much anticipated position battle.

The expectations are higher. It’s time to reload.

— Shannon Stowers

There were also a few faces missing. Well, players like Rakeem Cato, Tommy Shuler and James Rouse weren’t really missing—they graduated after all, but it couldn’t have been more evident that the football program is turning the page than it was 3:30 p.m. Tuesday when players took the field for the first time without a group of seniors who helped turn it around.

Now, with a senior class that won three bowl games in four years, including back-to-back seasons with 10-plus wins gone, head coach Doc Holliday is tasked with reloading a team he spent three years rebuilding.

On defense, the Herd returns five of the 11 starters who faced Western Kentucky University in the final regular season game. Offensively, only four players who started against the Hilltoppers are back.

Not surprising though, the team that went 13-1 last season was loaded with talent, as winning teams are. That means there are plenty of young players (hopefully) waiting to step up and fill the size 13 shoes the 2014 team left for them.

It’s unrealistic to expect the Herd to repeat the 13-win season from a year ago, though, but the talent is there.

Holliday will have to find a new starting quarterback for the first time since Rakeem Cato took the wheel and never looked back in 2011. Battling for position this spring will be Gunnar Holcombe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, along with Litton and Birdsong. It’s a battle that could be over in the first few weeks or last throughout the spring and into the summer, but one that will undoubtedly be the focus of fans and media.

The Herd returns relatively experienced groups in the wide receiver and running backs, but the losses of center Chris Jasperse and left tackle Trevor Mendelson on the offensive line add two more key offensive positions to watch in this spring.

Just as important will be who steps up on the defensive line, with Armonze Daniel and Jarquez Samuel the only starters returning from last season. The hardest hit position, defensively, is the linebackers with the loss of the Herd’s top two leading tacklers (Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes). Who will be the guys in those positions this season? Rounding out the defense is probably its strongest unit in the defensive backfield, with its only loss being Darryl Roberts at corner.

Yes, a lot of veteran faces are gone, but there are plenty talented players waiting in the wings. As the spring practices get going, we may find that those left behind shoes may not be too big to fill after all.

That’s where Holliday has his program in 2015. It’s not rebuilding, as he did from 2010 to 2012. The expectations are higher—it’s time to reload.

Shannon Stowers can be contacted at [email protected].