Marshall’s starting quarterback of two years, Isaiah Green, announced his entry into the transfer portal on Wednesday morning, which Huntington, WV’s The Herald-Dispatch confirmed with the Marshall athletic department.
Green started 23 games in two seasons with the Thundering Herd, accumulating roughly 5,400 yards of offense and 36 total touchdowns during his tenure. Following Green’s departure, Marshall’s quarterback room features almost zero in-game experience. With Green departed from campus, the depth chart suggests the next quarterback in line is redshirt freshman Grant Wells, whose entire collegiate experience is a 1-yard run on a fake punt last November.
Marshall’s most experienced quarterback on the roster isn’t listed at quarterback, but instead at tight end. Xavier Gaines — a highly touted 4-star dual-threat quarterback recruit from Frostproof, FL — signed with the Thundering Herd in 2016 while holding offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State, Auburn, and several other perennial Top 25 programs. At Marshall, he’s found a role as the most unique player on the offense.
Head coach Doc Holliday inserted Gaines all over the field the field last season, and the 6’3” utility player saw snaps at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end. Gaines added versatility to the offense, frequently lining up as a wildcat quarterback in additional to the other skill positions. Possessing 4.53-second 40-yard dash speed, he presented a dangerous rushing ability which opposing defenses struggled to contain. In 2019, Gaines averaged 7.0 yards per carry on 26 attempts, finding the end zone twice as a runner.
Gaines’ sample size of three passing attempts in 2019 isn’t significant, but he launched an beautiful 33-yard pass while on the run against Old Dominion last October. Most of his passing experience stems from his high school career, where he threw for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior.
In his primary role as a wide receiver/tight end, Gaines was one of the premier threats for the Thundering Herd last fall. He ranked second on the team in receptions with 27 and second in receiving touchdowns with three. The team’s leading receiver, tight end Armani Levias, graduated, as did starting wide receiver Obi Obialo. That leaves Willie Johnson (13 receptions, 349 yards in 2019) and Broc Thompson (19 receptions, 334 yards in 2019) as the new leaders of the receiving corps. But can Marshall switch Gaines to quarterback without seriously diminishing its wide receiver and tight end depth?
By transitioning Gaines to a full-time quarterback, Marshall would lose possible the most valuable piece of the receiving group, but that is the same sacrifice the Kentucky Wildcats successfully made in the middle of the 2019 campaign.
In terms of versatility in abilities, the most similar comparison to Gaines is former Kentucky QB/WR Lynn Bowden Jr. A third round draft pick by the Las Vegas Raiders in April, Bowden resurrected Kentucky’s offense last season after transitioning from wide receiver to quarterback. Bowden started behind center in each of the Wildcats’ final eight games, and Kentucky fared 6-2 in those contests, which included a last-minute Belk Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
Kentucky averaged 34.6 passing attempts per game in its first five games prior to Bowden taking over. Bowden threw 70 passes in his last eight starts, never using the aerial attack more than 12 times in a single game. The Kentucky offense adapted well to the schematic shift and played increasingly to its strengths by turning toward the rushing attack, and four running backs finished with over 500 yards rushing as a result.
That model can work with Xavier Gaines and the Thundering Herd offense. Marshall presents an established running game led by First Team All-C-USA halfback Brenden Knox and accomplished run blocker Cain Madden — a 2019 Second Team All-MAC selection at right guard. The Herd also developed a solid second option at running back with Sheldon Evans, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry and bolted for 375 yards last season.
With a pair of dangerous halfbacks in Knox and Evans, Gaines could function as the centerpiece of a zone read-based offense for the 2020 season — one heavily predicated on the run, while featuring small doses of screen passes. Marshall’s offense already relies tremendously on its rushing attack and opted for the run 59.7 percent of the time in 2019. With an electrifying runner like Gaines on the roster, the Herd could seamlessly commit to a wildcat-centric offense à la Kentucky which maximizes the use of Gaines’ talent.
In all likelihood, if the 2020 season kicks off this fall, Grant Wells is Marshall’s Week 1 starter. Regardless, Gaines will retain his reoccurring role as a wildcat quarterback while serving as the team’s top tight end. But with the potential a Xavier Gaines offense brings, the Thundering Herd should consider giving practice reps to the former 4-star dual-threat quarterback to begin the post Isaiah Green era.