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With Devon Johnson Out at Marshall, Who Becomes the Leader in the Herd's Backfield

Two years ago, Devon Johnson converted from tight end to running back on the first day of fall camp. What followed next was a season that Johnson competed as one of the nation's top running backs. However, Johnson's days are headed toward playing on Sunday, leaving Marshall searching for a Saturday superstar.

Tony Pittman (23) dives for a Marshall first down against ODU.
Tony Pittman (23) dives for a Marshall first down against ODU.
Falecia Collier/Collier Photography

How quickly things can change from one season to the next. That was the case for Marshall football in 2015. Devon Johnson took the nation by storm in 2014, rushing for nearly 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Herd had three players handle the rock for 100 or more carries that season while a pass-happy offense led by Rakeem Cato transformed into a balanced attack virtually overnight.

Hopes were high for the Herd rushing attack in last season; with many believing Johnson could better his junior season with a senior campaign to remember. While it was a season to remember, it was far from the outcome Herd fans had hoped.

Marshall's rushing attack was nearly cut in half in 2015, as the backfield tallied only 2,196 net yards and failed to have a back touch the ball over 100 times. The biggest reason for the significant falloff was the loss of Johnson to injury at FAU. The bullish Johnson didn't return to the field until the bowl game in St. Pete.

2015 was the year of the injury bug in the Marshall backfield, with three of the Herd's four primary running backs missing significant time due to injury. Johnson played in only seven of the Herd's 13 games, although that number is misleading after he was injured early at Kent State and had only three carries at FAU.

Remi Watson missed three games after falling to injury at Ohio, leaving Tony Pittman to tote the load for the Herd. The redshirt-sophomore did just that, taking over at Kent State, rushing for 129 yards—the first 100+-yard performance in his career. Pittman looked poised to take charge in the Herd's backfield, until he fell to injury midseason and missed five games in the home stretch of the season.

With all the injuries mounting, head coach Doc Holliday made a drastic call, moving Hyleck Foster from the slot to the backfield prior to the matchup with FAU. Foster was expected to carry the ball in a limited capacity against the Owls, but when Johnson was lost, the sophomore did something no one saw coming, rushed for over 100 yards in his first game as a collegiate back. The shifty Foster ran for 122 yards and a touchdown in the win and remained in the Herd's backfield the rest of the season.

2015 was well short of expectations for the Marshall rushing attack and 2016 is full of uncertainties with the loss of Johnson and Watson to graduation. Here's a look at the Herd's backfield options for the upcoming season.

Hyleck Foster, JR: 99-450-3TD-37.5 Avg: Foster's inability to hang on to the ball early on in the season cost him a starting position as the Herd's slot receiver. Foster slipped from starter to backup in the matter of a game and sat in Marshall's win over Southern Miss. One week later, he made the move to the backfield. Foster came to Marshall as a running back in high school, using his shifty moves and breakaway speed to punish the defense, and finally convinced Holliday to give him a shot in the backfield. Foster gives Marshall a speed threat, but his lack of size poses an issue when dealing with bull rush blitzes by the defense. Foster could remain in the backfield in 2016, but with the loss of Deandre Reaves at slot, he may have to return to his original position. Foster gives the Herd options, the posing question is which one is best for the team.

Tony Pittman, RS-JR: 64-327-3TD-40.9 Avg.: Pittman has the qualities to be a Johnson style of back, providing power and speed in his 203-pound frame. His biggest downfall, fumbles. Pittman's performance in the wins over Kent State and ODU clearly showed his potential, leaving the only question of whether he can live up to them in 2016.

Keion Davis, RS-SO: 73-331-2TD-30.1 Avg.: Davis' has great potential to become a 1-2 punch with Pittman once the game slows down for him, allowing the correct read to be made. Watching Davis in the backfield is like seeing a replay of Watson's first two seasons, more east to west running rather than north and south. In other words, not getting his pads turned toward the endzone and attacking the hole with authority. Davis needs to become more than just a short-yardage back for the Herd in 2016.

Delvin Weems and Ellis Cain redshirted in 2015, but have a great shot of earning playing time this season. Weems provides a look much like that of Foster, offering speed and shiftiness, but how well he can pick up the blitz will limit his opportunities. His upside, he takes care of the football, something Marshall desperately needs in 2016.

Cain finished as the No. 2 ranked back in Kentucky his senior season, rushing for 844 yards on 163 carries.

Next week we return to the defensive side of the ball to breakdown the linebackers, including whom Marshall turns to in hopes of finding a replacement for the CUSA Defensive Player of the Year in Evan McKelvey.