With all the challenges Marshall football head coach Doc Holliday faces for the 2016 season, there is one that he can honestly say he's been there done that. Holliday said goodbye to 18 seniors at the end of last season, but with all the voids on the field, he has one returner that will provide a solid foundation to build onâsophomore Chase Litton.
This will not be the first time in Holliday's tenure that he's started with a true sophomore calling the shots. In fact, in his six years with the Herd, Holliday has started a true freshman quarterback twice.
Rakeem Cato ring a bell?
The skinny-bodied Cato rewrote the Marshall record books in his four season with the Herd, while eclipsing current Seattle Seahawks' quarterback and Superbowl Champion Russell Wilson's NCAA record of consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass.
Cato led Marshall to its first ever Conference USA Championship in his final season in Huntington, but his beginning was far from memorable. Cato lost his starting job midway through the 2011 season to A.J. Graham, only to win it back one month later, before riding off into the sunset as one of the greatest quarterbacks in Marshall history.
Cato finished with 2,059 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in nine games during his rookie season with the Herd. Compare that to Litton's 2015 numbers and one has reason to believe the tall, lanky kid from Tampa is well beyond the curve of expectations. Litton tossed 23 touchdowns while throwing only eight interceptionsâtwo coming at Western Kentuckyâafter taking over the starting spot for Michael Birdsong in the third game of the season after the James Madison transfer was sidelined with an injury.
Litton never looked back, winning his first seven starts including a double-overtime win over Kent State in only his second outing. Litton not only led the Herd to its third consecutive 10+-win season, but also showed the poise and leadership well beyond his years.
If history repeats itself, Litton looks to provide Marshall with a breakout season, just like Cato in his sophomore campaign, throwing for over 4,000 yards, 37 touchdowns and only 11 picks, while starting all 12 games for the Herd.
However, while everything appears copasetic for the starting quarterback spot, the backup role is anything but. What appeared to be a perfect system for growth at the position has turned to more questions than answers.
Holliday's original plan included Birdsong at the helm in 2015 and 16 while redshirting Litton. That plan exited stage left three games into the season. Now the personnel in the position is as clear as mud after backup Gunnar Holcombe transferred out of the program and Birdsong has only one season of eligibility remaining. After transferring to Marshall in hopes of succeeding Cato, it would be hard to believe that Birdsong would be content in holding a clipboard in his final season.
Marshall has two other quarterbacks on the roster, both freshmen in 2015, with neither seeing the field. Kyle Gallup joined the Herd after graduating Chapparal High School in Colorado. Gallup threw for under 2,000 yards in his career and didn't play a full season until his senior year.
The Herd's other quarterback is Coy Petitt from nearby Cabell Midland High School in Ona, WV. The Knights worked in a Wing-T set, in a heavy run first offense, leaving Petitt few passing opportunities each night. Petitt threw for 1,181 yards in his final season, but averaged less than 100 yards a night through the air.
Although the future at quarterback looks bright with Litton at the controls, one freaky injury could take the Herd from a contender to a pretender, forcing Holliday into a difficult spot.
Holliday could elect to redshirt Litton in 2016 and hand the ball back to Birdsong. If this happens, it wouldn't be the first time in Marshall history. Legendary Herd quarterback Chad Pennington sat his sophomore year after the one time fourth-string quarterback led Marshall to the Division I-AA National Championship game in 1995. Pennington returned to the field in 1997 and firmly placed his names atop the record books on his way to the NFL.
Holliday's decision is anything less than simple, but it is one that must be addressed moving forward.
After all, spring ball begins in three months.