The Marshall Thundering Herd (2-1) head to Kidd Brewer Stadium to take on the Appalachian State Mountaineers (2-1) for the lone contest Thursday night, and there are a surprising number of devy-relevant prospects compared to typical Group of Five matchups. Here are my thoughts on some of the players you need to keep your eye on.
Despite making four-straight bowl game appearances and reviving the Marshall program back to relevancy, longtime head coach Doc Holliday was relieved of his duties in January after 11 years leading the Herd down in Huntington, West Virginia. Holliday was replaced by Charles Huff, who spent time as a running backs coach for Penn State and, most recently, with the Alabama Crimson Tide. The offense has been impressive through the first three weeks, ranking tenth in the FBS in points per game (43.7) and averaging over 600 yards per contest. After walking over Navy and North Carolina Central in the first two weeks, Marshall collapsed in their matchup with East Carolina last week, giving up a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and losing to the Pirates 42-38. The loss was much more indicative of their defensive and special teams' struggles, as the Herd missed a 31-yard field goal and allowed an onside kick that led to the game-winning score. Still, the Herd's hopes were effectively crushed by quarterback Grant Wells getting picked off in the endzone late in the fourth quarter.
Devy Prospects to Watch:
Grant Wells (#8) - Quarterback
During his redshirt freshman season in Huntington, Wells' status fluctuated drastically, bouncing from a future first-round pick to your typical frustrating-to-watch freshman. There was plenty of reason for optimism, as the Charleston, West Virginia native was named the Conference USA's Freshman of the Year and recorded 2,091 passing yards on the year, good for fifth among freshman quarterbacks. On the other hand, there was the Rice game, where Wells was picked off five times and shut out by the Owls 20-0 at home. We have mostly seen the positive flashes from the 6'2" 203-pounder through the first three games, as Wells has recorded over 300 passing yards in every contest, joining Byron Leftwich and Rakeem Cato as the only Thundering Herd signal-callers to put together such a three-game stretch. His average of 371 passing yards per game stands third in the FBS behind Virginia's Brennan Armstrong and Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe. Still, with three interceptions in the last two games, the redshirt sophomore will look to play a much cleaner game this week.
Rasheen Ali (#22) - Running Back
People around the program believed that Marshall would institute a committee approach when replacing longtime back Brenden Knox, but the Roswell High School product has received the majority of carries and has blown expectations out of the water. Ali has run for almost 300 yards through three games, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and is tied for the FBS lead with eight total touchdowns. After scoring four touchdowns in the opener to Navy, the 6'0" 201-pounder recorded his first career 100-yard game last week, running for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the loss. The Mountaineers held East Carolina and Elon to less than 90 yards on the ground, but Miami's two primary backs combined for 112 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. If Marshall wants to win this game, they will need to establish a quality run game, thus making the shifty second-year back from Shaker Heights' performance a major storyline to watch.
Corey Gammage (#7) - Wide Receiver
After leading the Thundering Herd in receptions and receiving yards a year ago, the 6'4" 220-pounder has continued to be a target vacuum for Wells in 2021. The Atlantic Community High School product opened the season with back-to-back seven reception games, combining for 163 yards and accounting for almost 24 percent of Well's production through two games. Gammage is coming off his career-best performance, recording eight catches for 180 yards against East Carolina, averaging over 22 yards per catch. In the four games last season where the Delray Beach, Florida native reeled in five or more receptions, he averaged 73.5 yards and scored four touchdowns. While the redshirt junior has yet to find the endzone this season, the volume he has received thus far instills confidence that the touchdowns will eventually come.
Xavier Gaines (#11) - Tight End
Originally arriving in West Virginia as a dual-threat quarterback prospect, Gaines's versatility has proven extremely beneficial for the Thundering Herd's offense. The Lake Wales High School product is coming off two consecutive seasons of at least 25 receptions and three touchdowns, and the production is certainly continuing into his sixth season in Huntington. Despite not finding the endzone through three games, the Frostproof Florida product has averaged three receptions per game and has amassed over 60 yards in two of three contests. The 6'3" 216-pounder has been quietly explosive for a tight end throughout his time in Huntington, averaging almost 14 yards per catch on 77 career receptions and remains the only tight end in school history to record three receptions of at least 60 yards.
X-Factor: Wide Receiver Talik Keaton (#9)
I referenced Keaton as a player to watch last weekend, and his stat line of four receptions for 35 yards against East Carolina was disappointing compared to his production over the first two weeks. However, his role as the vertical threat in the explosive Marshall offense makes him a player that must be contained for the Mountaineers to succeed. The redshirt junior has averaged over 17 yards per reception and leads the Herd with two receiving touchdowns. According to his bio on Marshall's website, the 6'1 184-pounder has a 40-yard time in the 4.4s and has recorded a 40-inch vertical. His film certainly reinforces the explosiveness indicated by his athletic testing numbers. If Keaton breaks off a few big plays on Thursday night, you should not be surprised.
● Grant Wells only received two Division One offers coming out of George Washington High School: Marshall and Charlotte.
● Rasheen Ali attended the same high school as musicians Kid Cudi and Machine Gun Kelly.
● Running back Sheldon Evans (#5) seemed like the primary beneficiary of Knox's graduation but has struggled to get much going on the ground this season. The 5'11" 192-pounder has only managed 79 yards on the ground (3.0 average) but has scored twice and added over 100 yards through the air. During his senior year at Roswell High School, his quarterback was Liberty's, Malik Willis.
● Running back Knowledge McDaniel (#15) has only received eight touches in 2021 but has averaged 8.5 yards per carry and scored against North Carolina Central. Coming out of Braden River High School, the 5'11" 211-pounder held offers from Georgia and Ohio State. He missed time during his senior season after the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) determined he received "impermissible benefits" by staying with the family of a teammate.
● Corey Gammage was originally committed to Florida.
● Wide receiver Jayden Harrison (#2) spent two seasons at Vanderbilt but only recorded eight receptions and seven kick returns. The 5'11" 193-pounder from Antioch, Tennessee, recorded four receptions and 81 yards against North Carolina Central.
● Wide receiver Willie Johnson (#1) is the elder statesman of the Herd's wide receiver room, contributing in 49 career games and recording almost 1,300 yards. The sixth-year senior recorded three receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown last week against East Carolina. The 6'0" 178-pounder's best season came in 2017, where he recorded 36 receptions for 443 yards and four touchdowns. Coming out of South Fort Myers High School, he held offers from Miami and North Carolina and clocked a 4.31 40-yard dash at Florida State's team camp going into his senior year of high school.
Appalachian State (2-1)
The offense has been much more balanced compared to years past, as the Mountaineers' passing game has been equally impressive through the air, with quarterback Chase Brice looking comfortable in front of Appalachian State's talented offensive line. Much of the production can be traced to the immense experience in the receiving room, as Appalachian State returned a stable of veteran pass-catchers that opted to use their extra year of eligibility from the COVID season. Appalachian State looked impressive in the opener, averaging 7.7 yards per play and rushing for over 225 yards in the 33-19 win over East Carolina. The Mountaineers hung tight with Miami, and they would have come out with the big-time win over a Power Five opponent if it was not for a few boneheaded plays down the stretch. Despite starting slowly against FCS Elon last week, the offense eventually wore down the Phoenix en route to a 44-10 victory. Still, with Marshall coming to Boone after blowing the game against East Carolina, the Mountaineers will need to clean up some things on offense if they want to avenge their 17-7 loss from a year ago.
Devy Prospects to Watch:
Chase Brice (#7) - Quarterback
Replacing a quarterback of Zac Thomas' stature in Boone, North Carolina, is a tough task for any quarterback, especially when the replacement only completed 55 percent of his passes and recorded more interceptions than touchdowns at his previous school a year ago. However, Brice has looked more like the quarterback Dabo Swinney recruited out of Grayson High School through the first three weeks for the Mountaineers. The 6'3" 235-pound Georgia native has completed nearly 70 percent of his attempts and has found the endzone at least twice in two of the three games. His 8.73 yards per attempt ranks just outside the top-25, and his six completions of 20 or more air yards puts him tied with North Carolina's Sam Howell. The Thundering Herd were just shredded by Holton Ahlers for almost 400 yards and three touchdowns through the air, providing Brice with a great opportunity to flash in a prime-time game.
Camerun Peoples (#6) - Running Back
Despite being second behind Nate Noel in carries, Peoples has averaged 6.5 yards per carry and has recorded five touchdowns through the first three games. Last week, the redshirt junior had his worst game of the season against Elon but still managed to rush for 80 yards and two touchdowns in Appalachian State's victory. The 6'2" 220-pounder from Lineville, Alabama, led the Mountaineers in rushing a year ago and was a man on a mission down the stretch, averaging over 150 yards on the ground and scoring eight touchdowns in the final five games. East Carolina's Keaton Mitchell averaged 9.4 yards per touch and recorded 170 yards from scrimmage against the Thundering Herd's defense, so as long as Peoples receives his expected amount of volume, he should be able to fair well against Marshall.
Corey Sutton (#2) - Wide Receiver
The Mallard Creek High product has recorded at least seven receptions or a touchdown in all three games, leading the way for the Mountaineers with 250 receiving yards. The 6'3" 205-pounder redshirted in 2017 after transferring from Kansas State but has been a dynamic weapon since landing in Boone, recording back-to-back seasons with 40 or more receptions while compiling 1,374 yards and 17 touchdowns. He opted out last season while recovering from an ACL injury suffered in 2019, but it looks like Sutton is back and better than ever. Fresh for a 128-yard performance against Elon, the Charlotte, North Carolina native will look to continue his high-volume role as Brice's primary option into week four.
Thomas Hennigan (#5) - Wide Receiver
It feels like Hennigan has been wreaking havoc against Sun Belt defenses for the past decade, and looking at his career receiving numbers, it sure appears as such. Entering the season top five in career receptions (182), receiving yards (2,301), and touchdowns (17), The 6'1" 210-pounder has been a consistent contributor since arriving in Boone from Northwest Guilford High School. The fifth-year pass-catcher started 2021 off strong with 114 yards and a touchdown in the opener but has only totaled 46 yards over the last two weeks. In last season's matchup with the Thundering Herd, Hennigan reeled in five receptions for 88 yards, averaging almost 18 yards per reception. Do not be surprised if the Greensboro, North Carolina native gets back on track against the hit-or-miss Mountaineers' pass defense.
X-Factor: Wide Receiver Malik Williams (#14)
Williams started slowly in the opener, totaling only three yards through the air in the win over East Carolina. The speedy slot receiver found his rhythm against Miami, reeling in five receptions for 57 yards and a three-yard touchdown to put the Mountaineers up one late in the fourth quarter. The redshirt senior's 123-yard performance last week against Elon was the best performance yardage-wise of his career, and his 47-yard touchdown in the first quarter was one of three receptions that went for over 20 yards. Tyler Snead gashed the Thundering Herd from the slot to the tune of five receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown a week ago, and with Williams continuing to see a rise in volume manning the same role, this should be a great matchup for the Chester, South Carolina native.
● Chase Brice graduated from Clemson with a degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management.
● Running back, Nate Noel (#20) leads the Mountaineers in carries and has averaged over five yards per carry. The 5'10 190-pounder ran for over 125 yards in the opener against East Carolina
● Running back, Anderson Castle (#44) averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored his first career touchdown last weekend against Elon. The sophomore began his career in Boone as a linebacker. The 6'0" 210-pounder grew up attending Appalachian State games and considered the Mountaineers as his dream school. Castle amassed over 7,000 total yards and scored 101 touchdowns over his varsity three seasons with Watauga High School.
● Corey Sutton has a brother, Coen, who is a freshman receiver for the Mountaineers.
● Thomas Hennigan was named to North Carolina's All-Decade Team for the 2010s by HighSchoolIT.com. Other pass-catchers that made the list were ECU's C.J. Johnson, Clemson's Cornell Powell, and Wake Forest's Sage Surratt.
● Malik Williams is a converted quarterback that broke Chester Senior's all-time single-season touchdown record with 42 scores. The 5'10" 185-pounder passed Tony McNeal, who played briefly at Clemson.
● Wide receiver Jalen Virgil (#11) has been a member of Bruce Feldman's "Freak List" the last four years in a row. The sixth-year senior ran a 10.29 100m as a redshirt sophomore at the Sun Belt Outdoor Championships and has recorded a 40.5-inch vertical. The 6'1" 210-pounder is one of three players in Appalachian State history with multiple kickoff return touchdowns. Through three games, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native has recorded six receptions for 66 yards.
● Wide receiver Christian Wells (#16) has recorded three receptions for 31 yards through three games.
● Tight end Henry Pearson (#88) recorded a reception in the first two games before not recording a statistic last week against Elon. The 6'3" 245-pounder has six career touchdown receptions and has averaged 11.1 yards per reception.
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