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Marshall Football: A Year of Reloading...Not rebuilding

Tell Marshall head coach Doc Holliday he is in a rebuilding year and he will beg to differ that his team is simply reloading. But with the loss of several keys faces on both sides of the ball, is the Herd poised to defend its 2014 Conference USA Championship.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Ask Marshall football head coach Doc Holliday his take on what he has to do with the team this year and he will say the Herd is reloading, not rebuilding. But can a team loose what the Herd lost from last season and not rebuild?

Rakeem Cato, Tommy Shuler, Chris Jasperse, James Rouse and Darryl Roberts...all gone, yet Holliday insists he is reloading. After the first week of the Herd's fall camp coming to a conclusion, many are singing the same song as the Marshall skipper.

One look at the new Herd quarterback Michael Birdsong and suddenly Bob Marley's "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" pops into your head. The James Madison transfer is legit, and has the arm strength of a NFL caliber quarterback. Deep balls, quick slants, post routes...Birdsong has them all.

He has a talented group of receivers too.

The Herd will turn to senior Davonte Allen and sophomore Deon-Tay McManus as the leading outside receivers. Both played a significant part in Marshall's 13-1 season and both have been stellar in camp. Allen is showing signs of taking his game to the next level by winning jump balls on deep routes and hauling in one-handed grabs while fighting of a corner. McManus' size makes him a matchup nightmare for smaller corners, allowing him to win the battle off the line.

Sophomore Hyleck Foster will work from the slot this season after coming on late last season. His speed and hands makes him a reliable target anywhere on the field, and a target Birdsong looks for when he needs to move the chains.

Ryan Yurachek has been a reliable target and provided great pass protection in camp, something Holliday demands from his tight ends. Yurachek has the hands and speed of a receiver but the strength of a fullback. Marshall has four potential players that could work in the position this season.

The skies the limit for Birdsong and he has a "Rock" solid foundation in Devon Johnson to back him up. Johnson, aka Rockhead, earned the nickname from Holliday last season for his bullish running style. Johnson punished opposing defenses last season for 1,767 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first year as a running back. After spending a full offseason with running backs coach Chris Barclay, Johnson's field vision is even better, but he still relies on one style of running, devastating.

Johnson has bull rushed over several Herd defenders throughout camp while breaking free for big gains. His physical style of play has become contagious among his fellow backs with Remi Watson and Tony Pittman following the senior's lead. Watson missed spring camp, but worked with Barclay in film sessions to refine his craft. Watson said the game has slowed tremendously and he runs with conviction.

Led by Clint Van Horn and Sebastian Johansson, Marhsall's offensive line looks to be in midseason form. The unit has opened running lanes while providing protection for Birdsong to hit the deep ball. Center Michael Selby has stepped up big, filling the void left by Jasperse.

Simply put, the Herd's offense looks like a well-oiled machine.

Defensively, Marshall has worked through a learning curve after loosing five starters from 2014. Linebacker Evan McKelvey returns after suffering a season-ending ACL injury last year and Holliday said for the first time in his career, McKelvey looks like a linebacker. The senior weighed in at 220 lbs. and has shown no setbacks from the injury. D.J. Hunter and Shawn Petty join McKelvey at linebacker with four eager bodies ready to contribute.

Corey Tindal, Keith Baxter, Rodney Allen and Antavis Rowe are volleying for position at corner with newcomers Chris Williams-Hall and Antonio Howard quickly gaining attention. Safeties A.J. Leggett, Taj Letman and Tiquan Lang anchor the unit tagged the "No Fly Zone." Leggett and Letman each had four interceptions last season and both have been the only player to come close to picking off Birdsong.

Although the middle of the defensive line has looked solid with Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon getting a solid push up the middle, the ends have been a work in progress. Gary Thompson, Armonze Daniel, Joe Massaquoi and Blake Keller hope to provide a rush off the edge.

Punter Tyler Williams has been booming the ball during punt drills while Amoreto Curraj, Nick Smith and Kaare Vedvik look to add their unique touch to the Herd's kicking unit.

Marshall's camp continues through end of the month and opens its season with Big Ten member Purdue at Joan C. Edwards Stadium Sept. 6.