HUNTINGTON – Marshall football fans seem to love a “quarterback controversy” among the Herd. Well, for 2016, it seemed there was potentially a different kind of just that.
With true freshman starter Chase Litton atop the depth chart for his second season, rising senior Michael Birdsong went through spring practice and then finished his undergraduate degree work in May and headed for the FCS program at Tennessee Tech for a graduate transfer season.
That left backup duties to Garet Morrell, a strong-armed February signee from Leesburg, Ga., and …?
Well, Coach Doc Holliday’s program has answered that question as summer strength and conditioning and skill development is underway. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill Legg has a foursome to work in his QB room with once August camp begins.
In addition to Litton, the talented 6-foot-5 arm who led the Herd to nine wins in his 11 starts, including a St. Petersburg Bowl victory, there are pro-style quarterback Morrell and two other freshmen on board – Xavier Gaines and Jackson White.
“We’ve got those three freshmen on campus now, three guys to take a look at, and we sure like all three of them,” Holliday said. “All three are talented guys. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t, and so we’ll get into camp and see how it shakes out.”
The Herd coach made it clear the newcomers are much, much more than camp arms – and all are enrolled, going through summer conditioning and will be on scholarship once classes begin in August.
Morrell was in the fold, and has bounced back after suffering a fractured leg in the second half of his senior season at Lee County (Ga.) High School. As a junior, he threw for more than 2,700 yards to go with 27 touchdowns.
Many were surprised to see Gaines on the Herd’s National Signing Day list, although few will be surprised to see the February signee with the Herd as a quarterback.
A four-star prospect by multiple recruit rating services, Gaines, of Lakes Wales High School and Frostproof, Fla., was considered one of the top dual-threat signal callers in the nation.
However, he was listed as an “athlete” by many prospectors on a list that included Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin.
Many of those power programs backed away late from Gaines because he was considered iffy as an academic qualifier. Holliday and Co. stuck with the 6-2, 208-pound Gaines. If he didn’t qualify, Gaines could sit out the 2016 season at MU.
It never came to that, the Herd coach said.
“He was a highly recruited kid and he’s very talented,” Holliday said. “Honestly, we felt like when we were recruiting him that he’d make it academically. He wanted to come here, and he’s enrolled and ready to go.
“I think if you watch him on tape, you see he has the ability. You hope he can play quarterback and we think he can play quarterback, but until you get them in camp and get the pads on them, see how they play, you don’t know for sure. We think he’s got the ability to play quarterback, but we’ll find out for sure.”
White is the new name among Legg’s candidates to back up Litton, who threw for 2,605 yards and 23 touchdowns in 11 games last season. White, 6-2, 180-pounder from Buchholz High in Gainesville, Fla., committed to the Herd in early March by signing an institutional letter.
A Rivals two-star prospect, White was a Florida Class 7A All-State honorable mention as 2015 senior and The Gainesville Sun’s co-Big School Player of the Year. He threw for 2,732 yards with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the 10-2 Bobcats, who captured their first district title in 11 years and reached the playoff regional semifinals.
White, who considered a walk-on offer at Florida, set career school records for passing yards (5,187) and touchdowns (49) at Buchholz – the same high school that produced longtime broadcast “Voice of the Herd,” Steve Cotton – and certainly has the genes for the Marshall quarterback role.
His dad, Brian White, is the wide receivers coach at Boston College and a longtime major college assistant who was named 2004 AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year while at Wisconsin.
His other stops include Washington, Syracuse and Florida, where he was on Coach Urban Meyer’s staff with current Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. Brian White was an All-Ivy League second team quarterback and two-year starter at Harvard. His father – the new Herd QB’s grandfather — Don White, played QB at Notre Dame from 1957-59 and was a longtime Massachusetts high school coach. An uncle, Chris White, is an assistant coach at Iowa and former NFL assistant.
“We had an inside on Jackson because of his dad,” Holliday said. “Chuck and I both knew his dad. He came to the Florida staff when I left (to return to West Virginia’s staff for the 2008 season), and Chuck was still on Urban’s (Meyer) staff then and then Brian moved to Steve Addazio’s staff at BC.
“Jackson comes from a good football family, obviously. I think he waited to sign because I don’t think he’d found just the right fit, the right place. Once we determined that we felt like we needed to sign another one because of our quarterback situation, we were looking for a good one and we got one.”
Holliday said he knows there will be stutter-steps behind Litton, but then, it isn’t something the Herd hasn’t experienced – even recently. Birdsong began last season as the starter, but was shelved after two games due to injury. In stepped Litton.
“What I expect is anytime you’re going to deal with freshmen, you’re going to deal with some growing pains,” Holliday said. “But we dealt with Chase as a true freshman last year, and he came in and embraced it and became a good player, and we expect these three guys to get after it and do the same.
“There’s opportunity there. They all have the skill set to be very good quarterbacks. The quarterback position is so much about the intangibles, and from what we’ve seen, they all possess all the intangibles it takes to be great, and we’ll just have to continue to evaluate that throughout summer and August camp.
“We like these guys. We’re anxious to see what they can do.”