Entering the 2015 season, one of Marshall football's biggest concerns was who would replace departing defensive ends Ra'Shawde Myers and Arnold Blackmon. After all, the duo combined for 11.5 of the Herd's 38 total sacks, recorded 20.5 tackles for loss and forced five fumbles.
What started as a giant question mark on the Herd line quickly turned into an explanation point, with as many as 11 different bodies seeing work throughout the season. How big of an impact did those 11 create? Try recording 20.5 of Marshall's 30 total sacks last season.
Fortunately for head coach Doc Holliday in 2016, he has a stable full of able defensive linemen, including returning defensive ends that once again led the team in sacks. However, there is a big gap in the middle of the line with starting defensive tackles Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon gone. Also gone is backup Ricardo Williams, leaving plenty work up front to be done before the season opener.
They call themselves the "Yard Dawgs", referring to the style of play from the Herd's front line. Let's take a look at who returns to Holliday's pound to begin 2016.
Gary Thompson, RS-SR: 59T, 12.5 TFL, 9 Sacks, 5 FF: Thompson shared his first full season of playing healthy in 13 games and his stat line clearly shows. Over half of his career numbers (107T, 21TFL, 14 Sacks) came last season. His speed off the edge launched him into the backfield, creating havoc on nearly every play. Thompson certainly has the potential to play at the next level, the only question being will he test the draft waters this year or play out his senior season.
Ryan Bee, RS-SO: 59T, 8.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 3 FR: Although Bee saw action in 12 of the Herd's 13 games, he played as a backup until earning his first start in game No. 5 (Southern Miss). Bee earned the game's MVP in the win over ODU playing as a backup, something that even caught Holliday off guard saying he'd never heard of a backup player winning the award. Bee never looked back. Bee used raw talent and a blue-collar work ethic to quickly become one of the staples on the Herd's line. With another off-season in the weight room and refining his skill, teams will be forced to deal with the bull rush from the dynamic duo of Bee & Thompson.
Blake Keller, RS-JR: 39T, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 Sacks, FF: Playing in his first season with the Herd, the UCF transfer earned his way onto the field the old fashioned way, work. At only 234 pounds, Keller was undersized, but made up for it with speedy and shifty movements. Keller is a solid addition to the line and another off-season in the weight room will certainly aid him well.
Nyquan Harris, RS-SO: 24T, 1.5 TFL, Sack: Harris saw action in all 13 games for the Herd in 2015 while providing a solid backup in the rotation up front, sharing time in a three-man rotation with Tomell One and Jason Smith. At 293 pounds, Harris can become a force to reckon with and has a chance to start in 2016.
Joe Massaquio, RS-SR: 23T, TFL: Hoping to have a shot at a starting spot after playing backup to Myers in 2014, Massaquio became lost in the shuffle with the emergence of Bee and Thompson remaining healthy all season. He saw the field in all but two games in 2015 and should be a viable option in the rotation off the end in 2016.
Jason Smith, RS-SO: 12T, 2.5 TFL: Smith appeared mainly in cleanup time, but with a solid off-season, has a chance to compete for significant time in 2016. Another near 300-pound body on the line lends itself well to filling the voids created by Samuel and Dillon's departures.
Tomell One, JR: 4T, Sack, FF: The injury bug bit One this season, sidelining him for all but six games. One returned to the field in the latter part of the season and finds himself in the mix for playing time in 2016. At only 275 pounds, One needs to improve his speed off the line in the off-season.
Needless to say, if the Herd hopes to continue its defensive dominance of the past two years, it all starts up front, especially with the pieces lost on the backend of the defense in 2015. Marshall limited its opponents to 17.8 points per contest and allowed third-down conversions only 34 percent of the time. Something it must sustain in 2016 for a shot at a fourth consecutive 10-win season.
I move back to offense in segment three, with a visit to the backfield and a look at who replaces Devon Johnson and Remi Watson.