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Miami Football Faces Marshall To Start Season

Photo by Lauren Olson
Photo by Lauren Olson

The 2014 version of the Miami University football isn't supposed to look like the 2013 version. That's the way it has to be for a team that holds the longest active losing streak in the FBS.

Nearly everything is different this season. The coaching staff is new, the quarterback is new, the offense and the defense are new.

The new coach is Chuck Martin, the former offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. A one-season turnaround isn't expected under Martin, and it can't be for at team that has lost 16 straight games. But Martin looks like the man to revitalize a once-proud program that has fallen outside of the top 25 in all-time wins since its losing streak began.

Much like the head coach, the new quarterback is from Notre Dame. Andrew Hendrix, a former four-star recruit who didn't play that much at Notre Dame, will start for the first time in his final collegiate season.

"It's my first collegiate start and I'm gonna be 23 years old," Hendrix said. "So that's getting up there. I'm like a grandpa getting his first start."

Martin knows Hendrix is ready for the game, maybe even a bit too much.

"Andrew Hendrix is really excited," Martin said. "He's worked a long time. He's worked very hard in the classroom, he's worked very hard in football and this is really his opportunity. You can just tell we're going have to keep him calmed down on Saturday because he can't wait to get out there and play and have fun and compete and play with the guys at Miami and throw the ball around to our receivers. He is really, really excited about the opportunity and I'm really, really excited for him."

Hendrix and Martin are joined by a pair of fellow former Golden Domers in tight end Alex Welch and nickel back Lo Wood. Both should see significant playing time.

Another notable newcomer isn't changing schools, but rather sports. Quinten Rollins is using his final year of eligibility as corner back after playing point guard for Miami's basketball team.

But he's not just playing: he's starting. It's an incredible turnaround for someone who hasn't played a down of football in over four years.

"[It's] good and bad," Martin said. "Very good for Quinten that he can not play football and become a starter in about three days of spring ball. Bad for the overall picture that a guy could come off the basketball court and become a starter in about three days. It's definitely a pro and con, depending on how you look at it. But he's a pretty special athlete, he's a special kid. We're excited to have him out there."

The offense returns most of its key players from last year, but they'll be used in a totally different fashion. Martin is changing schemes this season, moving to a more spread offense.

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That means last season's wishbone/triple option/abomination offense that resulted in an NCAA FBS worst 9.8 points per game is a thing of the past.

"We need to score more points per game than 9 points a game, obviously," Martin said. "That's really bad. The first thing we gotta do is get first downs. It's beyond scoring points. If we just got a bunch of first downs a year ago, and didn't score many more points, we could have at least helped out defense manage the game and not be so worn out by halftime, where they were typically out of gas."

Miami will employ a tailback by committee approach this season with as many as six players, including three true freshmen, getting touches.

"I think [true freshmen] Paul Moses, Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young will all play," Martin said. "To what extent will kind of depend on the flow of the game really. But I think they are all gonna be in the mix and developing and growing. They are all doing good thing. They're all probably not quite ready for Marshall but I think we're going to throw them in there anyway … They gotta get into the fire and get developing."

The team has depth at wide receiver with veterans like seniors Dawan Scott and David Frazier, and inexperienced, but intriguing players such as sophomore Jared Murphy, redshirt sophomore Fred McRae and even true freshman Sam Martin. Of all the positions, Miami might be deepest at wide out.

The RedHawks are thin on the offensive line.

"We have no depth there, so we don't have to worry about that," Martin said at the Mid-American Conference media day. "That's a problem. We're working hard to rectify that through recruiting, but it's just a major issue that we are just going to have to deal with for the next year or two."

The defensive scheme is new, too. Miami ran the vast majority of their plays in either a base 4-3 look or a 3-3-5 look last season.

Martin and his staff will look to be more "multiple" this season, which means some 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, nickel and dime looks. They'll also experiment with a variety of schemes to see what Miami is best at.

That's what happens when a totally new coaching staff is hired: the staff doesn't truly know what type of players it has until they see the team play against an opponent dressed in something other than red and white.

As for individual players, junior linebacker Kent Kern is back to lead the defense. He led the team in tackles last season and Martin has said he thinks highly of him.

Junior defensive end Bryson Albright has potential as a 4-3 defensive end/3-4 outside linebacker and Miami needs someone to rush the passer.

Another spot Miami is deep at is cornerback, with Rollins and Wood listed as starters on Miami's depth chart alongside Marshall Taylor. Martin said Taylor has improved as much as any player since Martin has taken over.

That leaves Heath Harding, who started last season as a true freshman, as the odd man out. Harding will see the field plenty throughout the season though, as Miami should use more corners than they did in the past.

The RedHawks didn't lose a ton of key players, but they did lose one of the best: their punter, Zac Murphy.

Miami punted a ton last season, and Christian Koch is the next man up at the position.

Riding a 16-game losing streak, Miami faces a dangerous opponent in Marshall University, which defeated Miami 52-14 last season, after the two squads renewed an old rivalry. Marshall is a trendy pick to go undefeated this season and maybe, just maybe, cause some havoc in the inaugural College Football Playoff season.

The Thundering Herd are led by senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, a Heisman Trophy darkhorse who might be the best player the average fan has never heard of. He has a chance to break several schools records, most of which belong to former Marshall greats Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.

"He makes plays every week," Martin said. "It starts with trying not to let him know what he's got before the snap. He's a pretty experienced kid, pretty smart kid, so trying to mix up fronts and coverages enough that he's got to read it on the fly, which he's more than capable of, but at least your not making it easy on him … He's on the Heisman watch list for a reason. He's a really good player."

Kern is confident in the RedHawks' game plan for Cato and company.

"I think we have a great game plan going into this game," Kern said. "We've prepared for all the situations that we're going to see against Marshall. Every day, we're preparing for some different situation that they could do."

All Cato did against Miami last season was throw for 253 yards, 5 touchdowns and run for another 59 yards. He didn't play the whole game.

"He's good, but he's nothing that we can't handle I don't think," Kern said. "He makes a lotta plays on the move, he scrambles around, he extends plays, but we just need to make sure we can keep him in the pocket."

Cato's top target is senior wide out Tommy Shuler, who is coming off back-to-back 100-plus catch seasons. He and Cato have an almost telepathic connection, dating back to their days as high school teammates.

Shuler caught 106 passes last season. The 'Hawks return just 102 catches, after having a meager 131 total last season.

The Herd's defense was also the best in Conference USA last season.

Long story short, Marshall is good and the RedHawks are 24-point underdogs for a reason.

"Obviously I'm excited about the challenge this weekend," Martin said. "Excited to see these kids compete. I'm proud of the way they've worked for basically the last nine months. I think we've come a long way in a short time. Obviously the task is pretty daunting when you return to a game you lost 52-14. How much of the 38 points have we closed the gap? We're gonna find out."

Miami and Marshall square off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Yager Stadium. Fans can also listen to the game at redhawkradio.com.

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