HUNTINGTON — When spring football was canceled in mid-March, Marshall football’s coaching staff already had its spring schedule in place.
Head coach Doc Holliday and staff had already met on several occasions to create a gameplan for what the focus of the 2020 spring drills would entail.
When the COVID-19 pandemic took away the Herd’s 15-practice spring session, it also took away the opportunity for many important questions to be answered prior to heading into fall camp.
The coaches have been able to do some work within a virtual meeting room, but there are just some things that have to play out on the field.
Obviously, there are more pressing questions at this point — such as when football will resume — but here is a look at a few items that would’ve been made more clear had the team taken part in spring drills.
Now these questions will be at the forefront of the Herd’s agenda when or if play resumes this fall.
1. Who will replace Levi Brown at center?
Marshall returns many pieces to its offense, including running back Brenden Knox, who won the Conference USA Most Valuable Player award last season, quarterback Isaiah Green and five experienced offensive linemen. However, there is one lineman who doesn’t return, and that was the Herd’s most important one over the last four seasons — center Levi Brown.
The question of who would replace Brown, a player who made the offensive line calls and became one of the nation’s best at his position, was the team’s most pressing as it headed into spring. Senior Alex Salguero, who backed up Brown last season, is slated to move into the spot, but the team was also going to work out fellow senior Alex Mollette, who has more interior on-field experience than Salguero.
The spring sessions were going to go a long way toward determining who would start at center — a decision that the team wanted to shore up by the end of spring to head into fall with a clearcut plan in place. It doesn’t just impact one position, either. Should it become Mollette’s position, it shifts several players around on the front and could potentially move Will Ulmer inside to give the Herd a senior-heavy offensive front with five guys featuring starting experience.
As it appears now, that decision will have to play out in the fall in possibly an abbreviated timeline as teams get back to the field.
2. What will the Herd’s starting linebacker group look like?
Marshall lost two-thirds of its starting linebacker corps with Omari Cobb and Tyler Brown’s graduations, but the team signed graduate transfer Brian Cavicante from Delaware State and several junior college players as well, including Navarro College’s Abraham Beauplan and Butler C.C.’s Charlie Gray.
Those players are expected to join returning senior Tavante Beckett as forces at the second level, but the spring was intended to be a time for them to get used to the scheme of defensive coordinator Brad Lambert while also building chemistry with each other.
Considering what Cobb and Brown meant to the defense last season, the importance of getting that spring under their belt can’t be understated. Upon arrival, those guys will have to mesh on the fly while learning Lambert’s system.
3. Who will emerge among Marshall’s wide receivers as a go-to threat?
Throughout the 2019 preseason, all signs appeared that freshman Talik Keaton would evolve as a main threat for Green after repeatedly making big plays in practice. However, nagging injuries limited Keaton’s abilities as a receiver and he ended up with just nine catches on the year.
Instead, it was another freshman — Broc Thompson — who started to make his presence felt, finishing with 19 catches for 334 yards, placing him third in receiving.
Thompson joins veteran starter Willie Johnson and Keaton as players who could emerge into viable targets, but the most excitement surrounding the room stems from Corey Gammage, who showed flashes of brilliance early last season, but tapered off. Word is that Gammage had an excellent winter conditioning session and that coaches were anxious to see his progress play out on the field.
Add in junior college transfer Shadeed Ahmed and the potential addition of former Nebraska receiver Jaron Woodyard and it turns into a question of who will emerge among a talented pool of players to lock in with Green and the Herd offense.
4. Can Marshall build depth at its cornerback spot?
There will be plenty of new in the secondary for Marshall in 2020. Gone are cornerbacks coach Chip West and safeties coach Mike Treier, and in are new corners coach Pat Bastien (Georgia) and safeties coach Jordon Hankins (UT-Martin).
Those new coaches bring their own flavor to the secondary, but with Nazeeh Johnson and Micah Abraham returning at the safety spots, the spotlight falls on the island at the cornerback spot where the Herd lost a pair of starters in Chris Jackson and Kereon Merrell.
The cupboard isn’t fully bare at the position with junior Steven Gilmore and senior Jaylon McClain-Sapp returning, but behind them are plenty of unknowns — especially with the transfer of Jestin Morrow.
The most notable among the newcomers seems to be Navarro College defensive back Josh Bowers, who posted 46 tackles and 15 pass breakups last season. Bowers is a burner, running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, but how that translates to the defensive backfield for the Herd remains to be seen.
One idea that could be bounced around is potentially trying out safety Derrek Pitts at cornerback, a position where he logged experience while at West Virginia.
5. Who will replace Justin Rohrwasser as the Herd’s starting kicker and kickoff specialist?
Justin Rohrwasser burst onto the scene as a senior for the Herd, hitting 17 of 20 field goal attempts while displaying accuracy in kickoffs that helped the Herd win the field position game.
For his efforts, Rohrwasser was named the 2019 Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Year.
Now, Marshall must find Rohrwasser’s replacement, which likely comes down to two players — sophomore Shane Ciucci and freshman Daton Montiel.
Ciucci assumed some of the kickoff duties in spots last season, so the Fresno State transfer has the edge heading into the season, but Montiel also showed promise in practice as his leg strength improved.
With Holliday’s emphasis on special teams, the kicker is going to be a focal point as fall gets going. It would have been nice to see both perform in the spring, but Holliday’s norm is to allow a kicking battle to play out until game week of the regular season to present itself.
In addition to these areas, there are plenty of questions that are left unanswered with the lack of spring drills, especially tweaks in system to each side of the ball that are discussed in the winter months by coaches while players are in their conditioning period.
Unknowns such as, “Will Marshall continue to utilize multiple tight ends?” and “Does the Herd switch to a three-man front defensively?” are items that will have to wait.
As Holliday and the Herd wait to find out the status of their 2020 season, the list of questions that need answered grows by the day, making for what will be a jam-packed preseason once play is allowed to resume.