They call themselves the ‘No Fly Zone', aka, the Marshall football secondary. The last two seasons, the group has been the last line of defense, and their numbers shout success. While 2016 presents several key challenges to the Herd's title hopes, shoring up the secondary it at the top of the list.
The Herd took a significant hit after last season, losing several key players at corner and safety including Taj Letman and Keith Baxter to graduation and Corey Tindal who left early for the NFL Draft. Letman and Tindal were both in the top 10 in tackles. Letman led the team in interceptions with three and Tindal had a team-high 13 pass breakups while filling the void of Darryl Roberts who landed with the New England Patriots in 2014.
Here's a look at who returns this season in the Herd secondary.
Tiquan Lang, SR: 5-8, 170: 91T, 2INT, 6PBU: Lang's 2015 season began with two pick-6s in the opener with Purdue, the first coming only seven seconds into the game on the first offensive play from scrimmage for the Boilermakers. Lang worked himself from back up safety into a starting role in camp and never looked back. His size often is overlooked, but his speed and power levels the playing field. Lang works well in the open field and can match up with taller receivers when needed. Lang has a great eye for the ball and makes quarterbacks pay when they try to force a ball into tight coverage. Lang can play either the field or the boundary and the play of Kendall Gant may dictate where he lands.
Kendall Gant, JR: 6-3, 198: 39T, 2INT, PBU: Gant has some big shoes to fill this season, as he is the man Chuck Heater will turn to in hopes of filling the void left by Letman. Gant came along nicely last season and saw action in every game. Gant's height provides a big body that can matchup on the deep ball to an outside receiver while being able to cover the field in a zone matchup. The question to Gant is how well he can defend the deep ball when playing against the opposition's best receiver. 2016 could be a breakout season for the junior.
Corey Neely, SR: 6-1, 177: 5T, PBU: Neely's services will be needed as a backup to Gant and his performance through spring and fall camp will dictate just how often that happens. Neely worked primarily on special teams but is needed in a much larger capacity in 2016. Playing time is there for Neely, its up to him of how much he earns.
Antavis Rowe, JR: 5-11, 167: 42T, INT, 6PBU: Rowe's role this season could be much of the same path Corey Tindal made during his time at Marshall. Tindal worked primarily at nickel until last season, when he spent much of his time as the lockdown corner. Last season, Rowe worked as the nickel and I would expect this to remain the same this season. Rowe plays physical at the line but has been susceptible to being beat on the deep ball in man coverage. He is also a magnet to the yellow flags, including the 15-yard type that flies once the play is finished. With a younger group of safeties in the backend, 2016 is the year to Rowe to show up in a big way.
Rodney Allen, RS-JR: 5-11, 180: 30T, 3INT, 3PBU: Allen could be one of the biggest contributors to the Herd's secondary in what will be only his second full season in the room. Allen arrived at Marshall as a receiver, but was convinced to make the transition in 2014 when the secondary became beaten and battered, and desperately needed added depth. With the assistance of wide receiver coach and NFL veteran Mike Furrey, Allen made the switch and came up big for the Herd down the stretch. Allen continues to flourish at the position and although he has been known to draw the flag for pass interference, he's far from bashful about getting physical at the line of scrimmage. Allen has the chance to take over for the opening created by Tindal's exit and Marshall certainly needs someone who can play that role.
Cody Carter, RS-SR: 5-10, 178: 14T: They call him Mr. Special Teams as Carter made his money flying down the field on kickoff and punt coverage searching for someone to hit. Coach Holliday thinks a lot of Carter and his work ethic and Carter is that wildcard in the room for this season.
Several other bodies will battle for playing time in the secondary, including transfer safety C.J. Reavis from East Mississippi Community College. Reavis stands 6-foot-1; 215 pounds and reports of his performance in the spring have been favorable. Another keynote to consider this season is Chase Hancock. The converted safety turned linebacker in 2015 has the potential to move back to the secondary should his services be needed. Hancock worked closely behind starting linebacker D.J. Hunter last season, and no one knows better than him of how to make that exact transition between the positions.
The final segment of this series will follow next week as the guys doing the kicking duties take center stage, including who will replace star punter Tyler Williams.