Thunder gets rolling
HUNTINGTON -- The Conference USA football season is officially underway now.
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday and senior captain and defensive end Jeremiah Taylor jumpstarted the season Wednesday in Dallas as they talked up the Thundering Herd at the 2013 Conference USA Football Kickoff, which took place at the Dallas/Fort Worth Marriott.
As media members entered the DFW Marriott facilities for the conference's Media Day, there was a welcome poster that said "Football Kickoff 2013 C-USA" on it while featuring a large picture of Marshall's Rakeem Cato, who is one of the most-watched players for the 2013 season in Conference USA.
Cato won the 2012 Offensive Player of the Year in Conference USA after throwing for 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns. He led the nation in completions (406) while his touchdown total tied for third nationally.
In addition to Cato, the Herd returns special running back Kevin Grooms, Biletnikoff Award wide receiver candidate Tommy Shuler and Gator Hoskins, a Mackey Award candidate at tight end.
While Cato and the high-level Herd offense are getting plenty of press and preseason accolades nationally, the focus in talks Wednesday for Holliday was about the need for improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
The strength of Marshall's offense was trumped by the defense's inability to keep opponents off the scoreboard in 2012 -- an aspect which directly led to a 5-7 finish in a season that fittingly ended with a 65-59 double-overtime loss to rival East Carolina that kept the Herd out of bowl eligibility.
"It was very frustrating," Holliday said of the 5-7 campaign. "Through all the years, you've got to be able to play some defense at some point to win and get yourself in a situation that you want to be in, which is win championships. Offensively, we took some strides and got better a year ago. Defensively, we didn't. We have to make sure that happens this year."
Taylor will be a big part of that defense as one of the senior leaders on a front line that needs to get pressure on the quarterback to be successful.
The former walk-on from South Point, Ohio, and now a Herd team captain is looking forward to the beginning of the season -- one in which Marshall is selected to finish second in Conference USA's East Division behind East Carolina.
Part of Taylor's excitement hinges on new coordinator Chuck Heater, who has invigorated the defense with an aggressive scheme that forces the offense to react instead of allowing the offense to set the tone.
"He has that go get it attitude," Taylor said. "He's changed up the scheme a little bit to make it easier on us, but it gives offenses little problems. We've been able to play with our offense and compete with them throughout the spring, so I think we'll be good come August."
In addition to the Marshall contingent, representatives from all the conference members attended the kickoff event -- including future members Old Dominion and Charlotte who join in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Ironically, Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, a former Marshall assistant in the early 1990s, and Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder spoke back to back at Media Day an hour after it was announced that a 2013 football game between their schools set for Nov. 16 had been canceled.
Charlotte canceled this year's game one week after Old Dominion canceled the 2014 game between the teams that was scheduled to be played in Charlotte.
It was then announced the 49'ers would instead play a home-and-home with James Madison, which will bring Lambert together with former Marshall assistant Mickey Matthews, now head coach of the JMU Dukes.
In addition to Charlotte and Old Dominion, the new members of the conference who begin play in 2013 were introduced to the league as well.
Those schools include East Division members Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Middle Tennessee State, along with West Division schools Louisiana Tech, North Texas and UT-San Antonio.
Marshall gets fall football practice underway Aug. 5 in anticipation for the season-opener against former Mid-American Conference rival Miami (Ohio) at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31 at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
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