HUNTINGTON — As Marshall gets set for the 2019 season, there is no position that will be more under the microscope than linebacker.
The Thundering Herd lost four mainstays at the second level of the defense in Chase Hancock, Frankie Hernandez, Artis Johnson and Donyae Moody.
Hancock was the team's leading tackler and a captain while Hernandez was third on the team in tackles. Johnson, who was injured late in the year, and Moody also were key contributors to the defense, providing leadership and experience.
With those players gone, there will be an immediate need for players to step into prominent roles, and the team's success or failure could very well depend on their ability to make plays.
Former Charlotte head coach Brad Lambert will be leading the defense and overseeing the linebacker position, and he will have his eye on the right combinations to keep Marshall as one of the top defenses in Conference USA.
Omari Cobb is the lone returnee with starting experience, having started eight games late in the season after emerging as a playmaker when C-USA action started.
While Cobb's return provides the Herd with a solid piece to build on, there are several unproven players who will battle in preseason camp to solidify their status in the rotation.
Darius Hodge moved from defensive end to linebacker in the spring and is expected to see the field in several roles after proving himself in limited action in 2018.
Tavante Beckett, a Virginia Tech transfer, is now preparing for games after sitting out 2018 due to NCAA transfer rules. Beckett performed well in the spring but has not seen game action in quite some time.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the Herd linebacker corps is whether Jaquan Yulee can elevate his game to the level expected when he came to Marshall after being an Alabama commit in high school.
Yulee has shown flashes of big-play ability (see 2018 N.C. State game on kickoff coverage) for the Herd but has never started a game on defense. Consistency remains at the forefront of Yulee's success or failure, and the preseason will be vital for him to establish himself as an every-down performer.
One thing Yulee benefits from is a close relationship with Beckett, with whom he played at Indian River in Chesapeake, Virginia. That chemistry showed itself in the spring as each fed off each other to energize the defense.
Marshall's 2019 recruiting class was heavily geared toward linebacker, and a pair of players who could provide instant depth took part in spring drills: true freshman J'Coryan Anderson and junior college product Breon Hayward.
Ultimately, the success or failure of Marshall's defense hinges on the development of the linebackers, meaning it will draw lots of focus as Marshall gets to work this week.
If the linebacker corps can continue the success it has seen in the last two years, Marshall could be in for a special year.
Developing quickly will be pivotal, however, with a tough non-conference portion of the season that includes Boise State, Ohio and Cincinnati - all chosen to be in the top-two or better in their respective conferences.