Marshall football: Shuler close to full return
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Tommy Shuler knows his beard could use a trim. The Marshall wide receiver's whiskers are a bit thicker than they normally are, but it's not out of a desire to look like his current quarterback and former Miami Central High teammate, Rakeem Cato.
The junior is a man right now without much free time.
"I just haven't been able to get to the barbershop," Shuler said. "I've been worrying about getting me back together. I don't need a cut right now."
Shuler has yet to participate in a full preseason practice. He's recovering from offseason foot surgery and coaches are easing him back into action. There's not much he needs to prove to the Thundering Herd's staff after his record-breaking season last year. But he wants to prove that he can reach the same levels or higher in 2013.
Shuler entered last season as a seldom-used slot receiver, but ended it as one of the top pass-catchers in the Football Bowl Subdivision. His freshman season in 2011 consisted of 14 receptions for 122 yards and no touchdowns. His sophomore season included 110 catches for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns. He broke Mike Barber's single-season record of 106 catches in 1987, was named an all-Conference USA first teamer and found himself on the 2013 Biletnikoff Award watch list.
But not finding himself among the players who can go full-contact this preseason has been frustrating. It's not something Shuler is used to, and not something he ever wants to get used to.
"Where I come from, we don't take days off," Shuler said. "When I was at Miami Central, I broke my hand the day before we played Booker T. (Washington) and I played the next day. It's been kind of frustrating being out for eight weeks.
"I feel like I've been getting my groove back each day, but I want to be out there to help them out," Shuler added. "On that big third down we want to convert, I feel we can convert if I can be out there just to give the defense a look or to get me the ball.
That competitive spirit has earned Shuler the respect of his teammates, especially senior corner Derrick Thomas. Since Thomas arrived last season as a Penn State transfer, he's considered Shuler one of his closest friends on the team. As fiery as they are going head to head on the field, it's that fire that's made them so compatible.
"It's his love for the game," Thomas said. "He just wants to compete so much. All he wants to do is compete, compete, compete. And now that we're running man coverage, he loves that, because it's just us against them."
Shuler always has been one who likes finding a way to slide his 5-foot-7, 190-pound frame into open space. In his down time, he's tinkered with his routes, finding a way to put a little more of what he calls "hot sauce" on each move. Thomas said before Shuler's foot surgery the two were regulars on the practice field in the offseason.
"All we did this summer was one-on-ones, all summer," Thomas said. "Shu would come knock on my door, 'DT, let's go. Time for one-on-ones. Let's go.' And I'm like, 'All right, let's go.' He knew I'd never say no. It's never an issue."
His foot has looked better with each practice. Last week during 7-on-7 drills, Shuler caught a pass, shook a ton of "hot sauce" on some would-be tacklers and darted up the field. Still, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday has said he'll bring Shuler back gradually to make sure he'll be 100 percent for the Herd's season opener Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio).
"My foot is back strong," Shuler said. "They just don't want me to go out there and do anything crazy. They don't want me to go out there and twist up my foot or mess it up. I could be cleared this week or next week, but I know for sure on (August) 31st."
Shuler can't wait to be back at full speed. As prolific as Marshall's offense was last year - and he was a major reason for that - he feels the Herd has a chance to be even better on both offense and defense. And that could be the key for the Herd to live up to the lofty expectations many have for it this season.
"This year's looking good," he said. "Our defense is together and our offense is even better because we have more depth than we had last year. I feel like we're going to make a good run this year."
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TWO NEWCOMERS lost the red stripes from their helmets after Monday's practice - offensive lineman Michael Selby and linebacker Neville Hewitt. Holliday said the team had decided both earned the honor and he couldn't disagree. ... Holliday also said the coaches will continue to be careful with linebacker Billy Mitchell's recovery from a concussion and linebacker Stefan Houston's recovery from an ankle sprain. He said Houston could probably be out a couple of weeks with his injury and Mitchell's concussion history - he missed six games last year with one - will make them take things slowly.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.