By JIM ELLIOTT
HUNTINGTON - Expectations like those Marshall is facing entering this season used to be the norm in Huntington.
But it's been more than a decade since the Thundering Herd have been looked at so highly, as they were picked to finish second in the East Division in the Conference USA preseason poll.
Expanding the Top 25 Coaches poll, Marshall opens the season ranked 40th nationally.
''I enjoy the high expectations,'' fourth-year coach Doc Holliday said. ''I don't want to be anywhere where expectations aren't extremely high. (Our players) also have to understand that high expectations mean absolutely nothing. You've got to produce on the field.
''It's all about getting it done ... make sure they understand that the expectations that are out there are a good thing but on the other hand they mean absolutely nothing. There's not a poll I've ever read in the preseason that worked out the way it was picked for the most part.''
The reason for those high marks is because Huntington is home to one of the nation's most explosive offenses, led by junior All-American quarterback candidate Rakeem Cato, and a defense, under a new coordinator, that has nowhere to go but up.
Cato, the league's preseason Offensive Player of the Year and last season's Most Valuable Player, is coming off a campaign in which he led the nation in completions (406) and passing yards per game (350.1). His 37 touchdown passes were third nationally, while his 69.5 completion rate was fourth and his 352.7 yards of total offense per game took fifth. He led everyone in pass efficiency (147.1).
His career completion percentage of 66.2 is tops in school history - inching ahead of the likes of Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
Cato has been named to watch lists for the the Manning, Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O'Brien and College Football Performance Awards.
Cato, who will be backed up by redshirt sophomore Blake Frohnapfel (18 of 23 for 180 yards, two touchdowns along with 258 rushing yards), led a Herd offense that averaged a nation-leading 90.6 plays per game in 2012.
Yes, they play fast.
But, questions surround who will Cato be throwing to in what is largely a pass-happy, tempo-based offense?
Though state product Aaron Dobson is in the NFL, Marshall, which was 5-7 overall, 4-4 in C-USA a season ago, has a pair of good ones in junior receiver Tommy Shuler (110 receptions, 1,138 yards) and senior tight end Gator Hoskins (35 catches for 374 yards, 10 touchdowns).
Shuler has been named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, while Hoskins is a preseason John Mackey Award contender.
Senior Demetrius Evans (32 catches, 284 yards), sophomore Davonte Allen (11, 183) and junior Craig Wilkins (14, 122) are nice options as well as two Penn State transfers, redshirt senior Devon ''MooMoo'' Smith and senior Shawney Kersey.
Junior tight end Eric Frohnapfel brings back 13 catches, 129 yards, and two scores.
Though they don't run it a bunch, Marshall had one of its best seasons on the ground in a decade and a half in 2012 -a product of a couple of things: a) good running backs behind good linemen; b) defenses going smaller in an attempt to slow down the nation's best pass game.
The Herd rushed for 169.1 yards per game - 55th in the nation - with sophomore Kevin Grooms leading the way with 737 yards and eight touchdowns on his way to being named the C-USA Freshman of the Year.
Redshirt sophomore Steward Butler didn't start a game, but he was second on the team with 500 yards on 101 carries, adding three touchdowns. Sophomore Remi Watson added 380 yards and senior Essray Taliaferro totaled 255.
They'll be running behind a veteran offensive line, words that haven't been echoed around Joan C. Edwards Stadium in years.
Junior Chris Jasperse is the anchor, and is looked upon as C-USA's best center. Senior Jordan Jeffries is back at left tackle; senior Alex Schooler is the right guard, sophomore Sebastian Johansson and junior Josh Lovell are left guards, and seniors Garrett Scott and Gage Niemeyer can both play right tackle. Sophomore Cam Dees can fill in at center, meaning the depth along the line is there.
Part of the reason the Marshall defense suffered is because the offense was so good. Holliday was quick to point out very few teams with explosive, quick-paced offenses had good defenses a season ago. It's the nature of the beast. They'll try to help by slowing it down a bit here and there, but the reality is, it's a unit that's just going to have to get better.
Marshall's defense ranked in the bottom fourth in the nation in scoring, total defense, rushing and passing defense, and stopping third-down conversions. The Thundering Herd allowed 50 points five times, gave up an average of 43, and they lost four games by seven points or less.
Defensive coordinator Chris Rippon resigned a day after the season and former Florida assistant Chuck Heater, who worked with Holliday with the Gators, was hired to take over.
With that, it's still about the players. Senior ends Alex Bazzie (80 tackles, nine for loss) and Jeremiah Taylor (54 tackles, 5.5 for loss) need to get to the quarterback in a hurry.
Taylor, a captain last season, was named to the the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award Watch List and a pair of preseason all-league teams. He led the team in sacks and blocked two kicks, forced two fumbles and had a fumble recovery.
Bazzie and Taylor, along with senior nose tackle Brandon Sparrow (52 tackles, five sacks), help give Marshall a formidable front. Seniors James Rouse and Ken Smith and sophomores Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon will work in and out next to Sparrow. Redshirt freshmen Gary Thompson and Josh Brown, redshirt sophomore Jarquez Samuel, redshirt junior Ra'Shawde Meyers, and junior Arnold Blackmon add depth.
At linebacker, junior Jermaine Holmes, (82 tackles, 13.5 for loss), who like Cato, Shuler, Hoskins, and Scott, played as a true freshman, is the headliner, while true freshman Stefan Houston had an impressive spring and may start at the weakside, backed by Beckley sophomore Evan McKelvey.
Senior Derek Mitchell and junior Raheem Waiters eye the strongside, with senior Billy Mitchell (34 tackles) in the middle. Redshirt freshman Kent Turene could see time as well.
Sophomore D.J. Hunter, a linebacker who was third on the team with 102 tackles, has moved to strong safety, helping what seems to be the team's weakness. Redshirt sophomore Shawn Samuels is also a strong safety.
Junior College transfer Taj Letman, a sophomore, is a free safety, as is redshirt freshman A.J. Leggett, the highest-ranked recruit in Herd history who tore his rotator cuff two weeks into camp last season. Redshirt sophomore Corie Wilson figures in the mix here, too.
Redshirt juniors Derrick Thomas and Darryl Roberts, junior Keith Baxter and redshirt senior Monterius Lovett (team-leading two interceptions) are the club's top corners, with redshirt freshman Corey Tindal flying up the depth chart and Shawn Samuels adding depth.
Heater says he hopes to find regular playing time for up to 30 players.
Junior Justin Haig is the club's placekicker, having made 13 of 16 field goals and scored 99 points a season ago.
Sophomore punter Tyler Williams has a big leg.