Marshall football: Shuler emerges among Herd WRs
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato vowed after Saturday's loss to Purdue that the rest of college football would soon find out about receiver Tommy Shuler.
Conference USA definitely knows about him now.
After catching a team-record 19 passes, a total that also tied the conference record for single-game receptions, the sophomore was named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week. He's become a focal point of Marshall's offense as he finds his niche among seniors like Antavious Wilson and preseason all-conference pick Aaron Dobson.
At 5-foot-8, he doesn't have the size of Wilson (6-1) or Dobson (6-3). He admits he doesn't have their downfield speed. He just has a knack for finding open spaces in defenses and being ready for every Cato throw. It's a trait he's spent years perfecting.
It's a kind of football alchemy. He'll take a route and add a juke or a head fake in just the right spot - he calls it "adding hot sauce" - to put a defender on his heels and gain a little more daylight.
"You can give him one step," he said. "You can give him a head nod. You can give him a double step. Going into a defender and knowing you have to play him all night, you have to give him different moves, so he doesn't just sit on one move. When you give him different moves, he doesn't know what to go for."
Cato, Shuler's teammate from youth leagues to Miami Central High School to now, is one of Shuler's favorite collaborators. At any time, the two will just head outside with a football. Shuler may have a specific route in mind, or Cato has a suggestion of his own. They'll run through it to see if Cato will have enough time in the pocket for Shuler to finish his shake-and-bake and get open.
Cato finds comfort in knowing his longtime teammate can stick just about any route either comes up with. And he finds joy in watching Shuler make some defensive backs stumble in confusion.
"Sometimes he'll give a move on a quarterback, and I'll just be laughing in the backfield," Cato said. "It's just a sick move that always works."
Shuler's 19 catches shattered Marshall's old record of 15 shared by three former Thundering Herd receivers. He now has 51 catches in five games, the most of any receiver in the Football Bowl Subdivision. His 10.2 catch-per-game average is third best overall. This comes after a freshman year where he caught just 14 passes all season.
Yet Dobson could tell in 2011 that, even with limited opportunities, Shuler had the tools to be an integral part of Marshall's offense.
"He's shifty, really shifty," Dobson said. "He won't kill you with blazing speed, but he knows what he can do. And he uses that to get open. He knows what his ability is and he uses it to his advantage."
Shuler knows what he is and what he isn't. He's not a supersonic downfield threat in the college game. But he knows he's a hard worker - Cato considers him one of the hardest workers on the team - who doesn't mind doing the little things to keep the offense moving. Those 51 catches have gone for 531 yards, but just one touchdown.
That doesn't bother Shuler, though. He's ready to juke and shake his way to tough yards when Tulsa (4-1, 2-0) visits Marshall (2-3, 1-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network telecast).
"They come to me and say, 'You take all the dirty work,'" Shuler said. "I want to be that possession receiver, the one that's going to move the chains, the one that, on third down, everyone's looking for and they know can catch the ball. "
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SHULER WASN'T the Herd's only award-winner this week. Gator Hoskins was named tight end performer of the week by the College Football Performance Awards. Hoskins, a junior, caught four passes against Purdue and three went for touchdowns of 12, 28 and 1 yards. He now has six touchdowns on 14 catches this season.
Hoskins said a renewed devotion to perfecting his route running and watching game film has allowed him to become such a dangerous target.
"I understand the game more," he said. "It's a big leap. I think I just got a lot better understanding the game."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.