Marshall coach Bobby Pruett expects his team to be much faster this season.
"We don't have all that hardware to weigh us down," Pruett deadpanned, referring to championship rings and trophies.
For the first time since joining the Mid-American Conference in 1997, the Thundering Herd is coming off a season in which it didn't win at least a division title. Marshall figures to build on last year's 8-4 record, however, and contend again as it enters its final season in the MAC before bolting for Conference USA.
"We have a strong group returning," Pruett said. "We have a chance to be a very good football team."
The schedule is rugged, with non-conference games at Ohio State and Georgia.
OffenseThe key reason for optimism is the return of senior quarterback Stan Hill, who starred through six games last year before a torn knee ligament ended his season. Hill completed 133-of-191 passes for 1,767 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions before going down. His 165.93 passer rating would have ranked second in the nation had he played enough to qualify.
Senior Earl Charles rushed for 1,039 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago and might be the best running back in the league. A sound receiver who combines power and speed, Charles helped Marshall lead the league in rushing a year ago. Tank Tunstalle and Marcus Fitzgerald, the brother of Heisman Trophy finalist Larry Fitzgerald, back up Charles.
Senior Josh Davis opted to return for his senior season after seriously considering declaring himself for the NFL Draft.
"Josh is a special player," Pruett said of Davis, who caught 66 passes for 823 yards and six touchdowns in 2003 as the Herd's No. 2 receiver. "He has size, hands and speed. He's everything you'd want."
Marshall's receiving corps is thin. Junior college transfer Mandell Smith will compete for playing time with sophomore Hiram Moore, seniors Brad Bates and Tremel Guillory and juniors Nate Manns and Wilbur Hargrove.
Left tackle Nate Griffin is a pro prospect. He and right guard Toby Bullock are the only returning starters on the line.
DefenseMarshall led the MAC in total defense a year ago but needs to force more turnovers. The Herd ranked 114th nationally in turnover margin and, although nine starters return, none had more than one interception in 2003.
"We have to create more turnovers," Pruett said. "Defensively, we need people to step up."
Senior ends Jonathan Goddard and Jamus Martin are high-energy playmakers. Goddard had 20.5 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and two fumble returns for touchdowns last season. Martin had 80 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Reggie Hayes is a force at defensive tackle.
The linebacking corps is a fast, veteran bunch. Seniors Kevin Atkins, J.T. Rembert and Dionte Wilson are strong against the run.
Corners Willie Smith and Roberto Terrell are solid, but the safety spot is a problem. Senior Moriah Anderson is at free safety with sophomore Curtis Keyes at strong safety.
SpecialistsThe kicking game is a concern. Klint Rose averaged just 38.5 yards per punt last year. Kicker Nick Kelly has limited range and will be challenged by Ian O'Connor. The return game is among the MAC's best, with Chris Royal, Wilbur Hargrove and others featuring outstanding speed.
Final AnalysisMarshall should contend for its sixth MAC title in eight years. The talent is there, but whether this team will come together better than last year's squad did remains to be seen.
Defense is a strength, especially at linebacker, but Marshall must improve against the pass.
Hill's return gives the offense a major boost, but unless someone other than Davis steps up at receiver, the passing game could suffer. Charles is an underrated runner who could have a big year if an inexperienced line comes together.
A Sept. 29 home game with Miami (Ohio) could decide the MAC East Division championship.