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Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Respect is something that is not freely given, but rather earned over a period of time. For the majority of the school's football history, the word "futility" best described the Marshall program. Both before and after the tragic plane crash in 1970, the Thundering Herd suffered through some agonizing seasons. However, things began to change in the late '80s and early '90s, before reaching the pinnacle of football excellence in 1996.

When Bob Pruett took over the reins of the Marshall program, he set a tone for the school that few expected. In his first season in Huntington, the Marshall grad (1965) led his team to an undefeated season and I-AA national title. The 15-0 record is the best single-season mark in college football history and set the wheels in motion for a successful jump into the ranks of I-A football.

Not content with just competing at the top level, Pruett's Herd didn't wait to be let into the I-A fraternity, but instead, they burst through the door and served notice to all would-be opposition.

Bob Pruett
Bob Pruett led his team to an undefeated season and I-AA national title in his first season.
In six seasons in charge, Pruett has amassed a 69-11 record (best winning percentage among active coaches) and is already the school's all-time winningest coach, passing Cam Henderson (68 wins). The team has made five consecutive bowl appearances and has won four MAC titles in the last five years. Pruett has two undefeated campaigns under his belt (15-0 in 1996 and 13-0 in 1999) and has turned the Thundering Herd into an offensive powerhouse.

In his short reign, Pruett has groomed some of the best collegiate players of their era, including All-Americans Randy Moss and Chad Pennington, who may add NFL glory to their football pedigrees before it is all over.

The team has recently been placed on probation for four years that restricts scholarships, as well as a two-year ban on non-qualifying players, but that won't hurt the team in 2002. This season should see another step in the right direction for the Thundering Herd. After going 11-2 last year and losing its stranglehold on the Mid-American Conference crown (41-36 loss to Toledo in the conference title game), Marshall is in the unusual position of trying to win a league title, instead of trying to defend one.

Something tells me, Pruett will find a way to use that to his advantage this upcoming season.

Of course, it helps when a team that averaged over 500 yards of offense per game last season, returns pretty much intact.

The key component of course, is senior quarterback Byron Leftwich. An imposing signal-caller to say the least, at 6-6, 240 pounds, Leftwich will surely have a few NFL suitors by season's end. Following in the footsteps of Pennington, who set numerous NCAA records while in Huntington, Leftwich is cut from the same cloth in terms of his understanding of the system in place and the tenacity in which he plays the game. Where he has a distinct advantage is in his physical attributes. There will be no questions about his size, arm strength, or toughness come April and he should be one of the first few players drafted. He is also not regarded as an athlete first and quarterback second. Although he has the athleticism to run with the football, he rarely does, as evidenced by his mere 64 carries in 2001.

Byron Leftwich
Byron Leftwich passed for 4,132 yards and 38 TDs in 2001.
Leftwich is coming off a truly remarkable season, as he passed for 4,132 yards and 38 TDs in 2001, while completing 67 percent of his passes and throwing just seven picks. In a shootout with East Carolina in the Mobile Alabama Bowl, Leftwich added to his lofty numbers with another 576 yards passing and four more TD passes.

However, like the rest of the program, he got little respect for his efforts nationally, including his omission as a serious Heisman candidate in 2001.

Improving on a 4,000-yard, 38-touchdown season is usually not within the realm of possibility, but Leftwich will have perhaps the nation's best receiving corps at his disposal in 2002, highlighted by All-American Darius Watts.

The junior wideout is regarded as one of the top receivers in the nation this year and is the complete package. At 6-2, 185 pounds, Watts is a big target. He also possesses the kind of straight line speed to be a difference-maker downfield. Leftwich's go-to-guy, Watts is coming off a 2001 season in which he hauled in 91 balls, for 1,417 yards and 18 TDs. He averaged 15.6 yards per catch and 118.1 yards per game, as one of the nation's best offensive weapons.

Sophomore wideout Josh Davis had a debut season to remember as well, as the 6-1, 195-pound youngster caught 79 passes (NCAA freshman record), for 961 yards and five scores.

Rounding out a potent trio will be senior Denero Marriott, who finished 2001 with 56 catches, for 800 yards and nine TDs. He had quite a bowl game as well in 2001, catching 15 balls, for 234 yards and one TD.

There is even more depth at wideout with Curtis Jones (6-2, 205-pound senior), who saw action in nine games last season, finishing with 19 catches, for 250 yards and four TDs.

The running attack is not the most frequently used mode of travel for the Herd offense, but did net over 150 yards per game last year. It will be tailback Franklin Wallace's job to once again keep opposing defenses guessing with some hard yards on the ground in 2002. A junior this season, Wallace averaged over five yards a carry in 2001 (5.2) and led the team in rushing yards (796) and rushing scores (nine).

Make no mistake about it, the Herd offense is as good as any program in the country. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the defense. The stop-unit did little of that in 2001, allowing a disturbing 416.4 yards and 23.7 points per game. The opposition had great success running the ball against Marshall, netting well over 200 yards per game (217.8) and almost five yards per carry (4.7).

Still, Pruett will not stray far from what has worked so well. Marshall is an exciting team to watch and will be right up there again in the thick of a conference title run, with offensive numbers that could boggle the mind.

The team's biggest non-conference game will come on September 12th in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech. Don't expect the Hokies to walk all over Marshall. The Thundering Herd will be competitive in every game this season and the team will finally start to open the eyes of even the staunchest critics of mid-major programs.

The Thundering Herd are slowly beginning to earn some national attention, especially with games against Florida last year and Virginia Tech this year, not to mention future games with VaTech (2005), Tennessee (2003, 2006, 2009, 2010), LSU (2003), Georgia (2004), Ohio State (2004), Wisconsin (2007) and defending national champion Miami (2007, 2011, 2012).

The most telling sign of Marshall's slowly forming respect is in it's 2002 schedule. The team has an open date on September 28th, but as of now, no opponent has stepped up to take on the Herd?

Why do you suppose that is?

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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