Signing Day: Marshall turns the tables on powers
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Normally, it's powerhouse football programs like Florida State University that enjoy a good National Signing Day surprise, snagging a blue-chip recruit while programs like Marshall's are left as spectators to another team's good fortune.
The tables were turned Wednesday.
It was the Thundering Herd that was celebrating at FSU's expense, as former Seminoles verbal commitment Michael Johnson, a safety from Miami (Fla.) Booker T. Washington, signed a letter of intent with Marshall. That highlighted a large and well-regarded 2013 recruiting class for the Herd and made Coach Doc Holliday a happy man.
Recruiting sites consider the Herd's signing class one of, if not the best, in Conference USA. The website 247Sports uses a composite ranking system that takes into account how all recruiting sites rate each class. Marshall's was ranked 48th in the country. That's not only the highest ranking for a C-USA school, but also the highest ranking for any school outside of a BCS automatic qualifying conference.
"Evidently it means you recruit guys that people think are really good players," Holliday said Wednesday afternoon.
"I'd rather be No. 1 than No. 10. I think it means we're on the right kids and we're getting the right kids, but what counts is what happens when they get here and step on that field."
Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound defensive back, was a four-star recruit according to ESPN and was rated the country's No. 27 safety prospect according to Rivals. He was named to the Class 4A Florida all-state second team after helping Booker T. Washington win the Class 4A state title, and had Ole Miss, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Kansas State among his other offers.
Holliday said convincing Johnson to come to Huntington had a lot to do with the relationships he and his assistants had built with the high school, the family and the area.
"We had great contacts at Booker T.," Holliday said. "(Coach) Ice Harris is a personal friend. We have a lot of friends at the school and I recruited Michael's dad way back when he was at Miami High years ago.
"He's a tremendous guy who wants an opportunity to play early," he added. "Kids do things for different reasons. We were fortunate. We hung in there with him, he visited and he ended up signing with us. It was a good get."
Johnson wasn't the only high-profile recruit the Herd signed with this class. Among the other signees rated four stars by at least one recruiting service are receivers Angelo Jean-Louis and Deontay McManus and linebacker Stefan Houston from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia; safety D'Andre "Chocolate" Wilson from Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High; linebacker Jeremiah Benjamin from Hollywood (Fla.) McArthur High; and linebacker Kent Turene from Atlanta Sports Academy.
This recruiting class was heavy on defensive players and offensive linemen. Fourteen of the 29 players announced Wednesday were defensive recruits, and six were offensive linemen. The Herd looked to fortify an offensive line that is improving, but will begin losing some key players to graduation.
"Offensive linemen normally have a hard time playing early," Holliday said. "Some of those guys may have the opportunity to come in and play ... and I think they'll give us the kind of depth, athleticism and toughness we want from that position."
It also spent a lot of time trying to fix a defense that finished 101st in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense and 119th in scoring defense. Former defensive coordinator Chris Rippon resigned the day after Marshall's season-ending double-overtime loss to East Carolina, and former Temple defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, who coached with Holliday at Florida, stepped in. Holliday said Heater and new offensive line coach Alex Mirabal made a big impact in a short time in recruiting.
The Herd also signed six receivers, as it lost three seniors - Aaron Dobson, Antavious Wilson and Andre Snipes-Booker - to graduation. Among them are two Penn State transfers - Devon Smith, who enrolled at Marshall this past fall and sat out the 2012 season, and Shawney Kersey.
Marshall maintained a significant presence in Florida, a recruiting hotbed for Holliday for years. Thirteen of the Herd's signees came from the Sunshine State.
"I'm happy with the class," Holliday said. "There weren't a whole lot of surprises. There were a couple of guys we picked up today we weren't sure we were going to get. I think, for the most part, we met our needs and we're excited about it."
Of the 29 signees introduced, 12 already are enrolled at Marshall. Holliday said up to 10 of them should be able to participate in spring practice. One player who won't be there is defensive end Larry Jefferson, a former Louisville signee who came to Marshall this past fall as an academic non-qualifier. Holliday said Jefferson was dismissed for violating team rules.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.