CHARLESTON (AP) - Marshall has a history of turning transfers into playmakers, and third-year coach Doc Holliday has several former major-college players in the fold to help the Thundering Herd compete for a Conference USA championship.
Former Penn State cornerback Derrick Thomas and wide receiver Devon Smith joined Marshall earlier this month for preseason practice.
Their transfers were unrelated to NCAA sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case, although Smith and Thomas will be eligible to play right away. Both left Penn State earlier in the offseason before the sanctions came out.
Thomas isn't the only transfer getting work with Marshall's first-team defense.
The secondary also consists of former Boston College starters Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha. The safeties didn't play last year, graduated from Boston College in the spring and are battling for two starting spots at Marshall.
Marshall has been known for success with transfers. West Virginia native Randy Moss lost scholarships at Notre Dame and Florida State before becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist for the Thundering Herd. Ahmad Bradshaw was kicked off the Virginia football team and flourished at Marshall.
While some college coaches have avoided bringing in Penn State transfers, Holliday has no trouble with welcoming Thomas and Smith.
"They're both great kids," Holliday said Wednesday. "They've done a great job for us. We're just glad they're here."
Thomas played in nine games last season and made four tackles. Holliday said the junior "definitely" will get playing time.
He's already fitting in.
Before a Marshall scrimmage last weekend, Thomas went up to quarterback Rakeem Cato and said, "I'm looking forward to you throwing me one today."
Sure enough, Thomas went up high and came down with a one-handed interception.
"He said I jinxed him," Thomas said. "Because (earlier this month) I asked him before a practice, 'How many interceptions have you thrown this week?' He said, 'I ain't thrown none any all camp yet.' And he threw an interception that day, too. Two interceptions, I jinxed him on both."
As for Smith, Holliday isn't sure yet about his potential contribution but should find out by next week.
"We'll see how it goes the next three to four practices," Holliday said.
"If he's ready to go, we'll play him. If he's not, he won't."
The 5-foot-7 Smith caught 25 passes for 402 yards and two touchdowns in 2011. He also returned kicks.
LeGrande made six starts in 2009 and Okoroha had six starts in 2010.
Thomas, LeGrande and Okoroha make nice additions to a defense that lost six starters.
Holliday is 12-13 at Marshall and has the chance to become the first Thundering Herd coach to have back-to-back winning seasons since 2002-03.
He hired three new assistants in the offseason: defensive line coach J.C. Price, cornerbacks coach Lytrel Pollard and Geep Wade, who will coach offensive guards and centers.
"I like our attitude. I like our work ethic," Holliday said. "I could care less about what's happened in the past. I'm only concerned about the future and I'm concerned about this football team getting better every practice. I think we have. I think there's no doubt that personnel-wise we're a better football team at this point."
Marshall has eight starters returning on offense from the team that went 7-6 last season and beat Florida International 20-10 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
Marshall will be looking for more offensive production this year after ranking near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision with 333 yards per game.
Cato threw for 2,059 yards with 15 touchdowns as a freshman. Four of his top five receivers from a year ago are back. Holliday is counting on Aaron Dobson to improve on his 49 receptions and 668 yards. Despite the limited catches, Dobson scored 12 touchdowns.
"I feel pretty good about our skill players," Holliday said. "Aaron Dobson's a great player, but we've got other players that we think can play too."
The running back position is wide open.
Kevin Grooms, an academic non-qualifier last year, and freshman Steward Butler are among a large group battling veterans Tron Martinez and Travon Van for playing time. Martinez led the Thundering Herd with 549 yards last season, but no player ran for more than three touchdowns.
Only two teams - Central Michigan and Akron - scored fewer rushing touchdown than Marshall's nine last season.
Marshall opens the season Sept. 1 at No. 11 West Virginia and has another tough nonconference test Sept. 29 at Purdue.