WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Marshall football seniors Devon Smith and Derrick Thomas go through practices for Friday's Military Bowl, they sometimes think about what the alternatives could have been. They think about former teammates at their old school, Penn State.
Whether the Nittany Lions' record was 12-0 or 0-12 this season, there would be no bowl game, nothing past the finish of the regular season, and that's something Smith and Thomas are thankful they don't have to experience.
They're also extremely grateful for the opportunities they got after transferring to Marshall. It goes past Friday's bowl game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. (2:30 p.m., ESPN). They're college graduates and contributors in the Thundering Herd's turnaround from also-rans to Conference USA East Division champions.
"The bowl game and the championship were important to me because Penn State couldn't compete for one," Thomas said. "Here, I got a chance to compete for a championship, play in a championship game and I got a chance to go to a bowl game. A bowl game's not promised, even if you don't have sanctions."
Thomas and Smith left Penn State for personal reasons in June 2012, about a month before the NCAA hammered the football program after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, where the former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator was found guilty of sexually assaulting children. The punishment included major scholarship reductions, a $60 million fine and a four-year bowl ban. The NCAA also allowed all players to transfer and be immediately eligible.
Thomas and Smith were searching for a new home, and admit they were worried if they'd return to college football. Those worries were erased when Marshall brought both in at the start of the 2012 season.
Smith, a wide receiver, underwent foot surgery and sat out last season, while Thomas immediately entered the Herd's cornerback rotation. Thomas started eight games in 2012, recording 53 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups while fortifying a corners group decimated with injuries. He, Monterrius Lovett and Keith Baxter were the corps last year.
Darryl Roberts' return from injury moved Thomas into a backup role in 2013. He's played in all 13 games, starting one and recorded 17 tackles and three pass breakups. This season also gave Smith his chance to shine.
A speedy wideout - he won the Maryland state high school title in the 100- and 200-meter dashes - Smith became one of the nation's best punt returners. He averaged 15.5 yards per return this year, which ranks 10th overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and scored one touchdown. He's also third on the team in receptions (34), receiving yards (599) and touchdown catches (four).