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Marshall football: Herd tries to forget slow start

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- With no opponent to prepare for last Saturday, the Marshall football team had a week to work on itself. It was time that receiver Tommy Shuler said was well spent in injecting the fun back into football.

"Just hang out around each other and talk, not just football, but talk about life," Shuler said of Marshall's bye-week itinerary. "Crack jokes and talk life. Let everyone know that, when we get on the field, I'm going to have your back and you're going to have mine."

In getting ready for the second half of its 2012 season - which begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at Southern Mississippi (CBS Sports Network) - the Thundering Herd is trying to erase enough of the memories of its 2-4 start to move forward with optimism. At 1-1 in Conference USA, the players feel their shot at a conference title game berth remains strong.

Marshall's practices last week were spent working on little things they knew were issues heading into the bye week.

For the offense, it was converting fourth downs and becoming more vigilant in holding onto the ball. The Herd has a respectable fourth-down-conversion rate, getting first downs on seven of 13 attempts, which ranks 55th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It's shakier in the turnover department, losing 12 - six fumbles and six interceptions. The defense worked on its communication, making sure every player on the field was making the right call and not being afraid to speak up when necessary.

The coaches and players also talked about their mission for the rest of the year.

They know the magic number for bowl eligibility remains four wins away. Junior tight end Gator Hoskins said the Marshall locker room is buzzing about finishing the season strong.

"There's a different energy," Hoskins said. "Coming into the season we thought we'd be better than 2-4 to begin the season. We've got the potential to be better than 2-4, but like the coaches say, potential will get you beat. We're just coming in with the mindset of let's get it done, let's go 1-0."

That included enjoying the game again. Shuler said that, as the losses started to pile up, the daily grind of college football began to overtake the team. The bye week allowed things to loosen up.

The team remains devoted to improving, Shuler said, but it's a lighter, more relaxed atmosphere.

"We're 20 years old, 22 years old," he said. "We've got to have fun. We're in a chill mode, but we're practicing hard. I feel like everyone's chilled and mentally focused."

Shuler said a family vibe returned to Marshall's roster last week.

The team is on the same page, a necessity as the Herd gets ready for its trip to Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are 0-6, but are starving for another bowl berth. The Eagles desperately need that first win, but Shuler said Marshall has pulled together for the challenge."

"You can't break a family," he said. "You can break a team, but you can't break a family. Once you get it back to family, the team is going to be there."

*  *  *

HOSKINS IS MODEST when it comes to his knack for scoring.

"I've gotten into the end zone a couple of times," Hoskins said.

Try seven times, the most of any tight end in the country, which has caught the eye of the John Mackey Award committee.

Hoskins, a junior, was one of 26 members of the Mackey Award midseason watch list. The Mackey Award, presented by Nassau County Sports Commission, is given annually to the top tight end in college football. Hoskins has caught 18 passes for 207 yards and his seven touchdown catches is sixth overall nationally.

Still, Hoskins said he has plenty of ways to improve his game.

"I was working on my footwork, getting better in run blocking - staying low and getting a little more physical, just playing a little harder," he said.

Shuler said Hoskins has become as important a weapon in the Marshall offense as any of the other top players.

"He blocks, catches the ball, makes the runs after the catch," Shuler said. "He needs to be on the field just like (receiver Aaron) Dobson needs to be on the field, just like (receiver Antavious Wilson) needs to be on the field, just like (quarterback Rakeem) Cato needs to be on the field."

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.


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