RB Devon Johnson looks for another great year at Marshall

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) Marshall running back Devon Johnson believes blocking is still his best attribute.

He may want to rethink that if he has another solid year carrying the ball for the Thundering Herd.

Nicknamed Rockhead for his bruising style, the 244-pound Johnson's move to the backfield a year ago from backup tight end was intended to provide protection for quarterback Rakeem Cato. But Johnson showed he could do some special things, too.

Despite missing most of three games late in the season with knee and shoulder injuries, Johnson finished with 1,767 rushing yards, the second-best single season in school history.

The senior should be the focal point of the offense this season with Cato gone.

''I'm happy if the team is happy,'' Johnson said. ''I'm happy as long as the coach is happy. That's all I want is for this team to win and achieve its goals.''

Johnson helped Marshall en route to its first Conference USA championship. He took pride in the fact that opposing defenses didn't blitz as much when he was in the backfield blocking.

''I think it helps our passing game and helps our quarterback to sit in the pocket calmly,'' he said.

Of course, he was happy with his running, too - more specifically, he was proud of his linemen for opening gaping holes.

''They made my job a whole lot easier than what it was,'' he said. ''I just ran hard for them because they were blocking hard for me.''

---

Some things to watch for at Marshall, which is looking for its third straight season of double-digit wins:

NEW QB: With the record-setting Cato now playing in the CFL, Marshall is breaking in a new starting quarterback. James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong won the job in the spring over backup Gunnar Holcombe and two freshmen. The 6-foot-5 Birdsong played 20 games in in two seasons at Championship Subdivision member James Madison, including 14 starts. He threw for 3,206 yards and 26 touchdowns with 16 interceptions.

THE SCHEDULE: Marshall went 13-1 a year ago and missed out on a chance to play in a marquee New Year's bowl, due in part to what some viewed as an easy schedule. The schedule doesn't appear to get much tougher this season. Marshall will host a school from the Big Ten for the first time when Purdue visits in the season opener on Sept. 6. There are nonconference road games against Mid-American Conference members Ohio and Kent State, sandwiched around a home matchup with Championship Subdivision member Norfolk State. Marshall has tough conference tests Nov. 7 at Middle Tennessee and Nov. 27 at Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers handed Marshall its only loss last season.

DEFENSE QUESTIONS: Marshall lost six starters on defense, including three linemen, two linebackers including leading tackler Neville Hewitt, and standout cornerback Darryl Roberts. The defense can't afford to have another lapse like it did in the 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky in which it allowed Brandon Doughty to throw for 491 yards and eight scores.

CATCH IF YOU CAN: Also gone is Tommy Shuler, who set Conference USA and Marshall's career records for receptions, including 18 in his final game in a Boca Raton Bowl win over Northern Illinois. The top returning receivers are sophomore Deon-Tay McManus with 26 catches for 422 yards and six scores and Davonte Allen with 22 catches for 544 yards and four scores.

FAST NEWCOMER: Freshman cornerback Antonio Howard's nickname is Speedy, as it should be. He's the son of former West Virginia wide receiver Antonio Brown, who played for the Mountaineers from 1998-2001. ''His dad was extremely explosive and fast,'' said Marshall coach Doc Holliday, a WVU assistant when Brown was a player. ''Speedy tells me he can outrun his dad. But his dad could still outrun him.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.