Marshall football: Shuler still finds holes in defense
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall wide receiver Tommy Shuler knew before he took the field this season there would be nowhere to hide, not after he set a school record with 110 catches in 2012. He knew he'd see double teams. He knew he'd be the focus of opposing defenses.
Yet somehow, he's still finding the ball.
Despite being a prime target of other defenses, and the lack of catches for other receivers, Shuler tops the team with 23 receptions. His 7.7 catches per game are fourth in Conference USA and tied for 17th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The junior could find it a lot tougher to find open space Saturday, as Marshall visits Virginia Tech at noon (ESPNU) and Shuler faces one of college football's top defenses.
Shuler said preparation is key in finding the openings, even when defenses are working harder than ever to close them.
"That's what extra film does," Shuler said. "It tells you where the open spots are, how to read the coverages and know what they're playing. Then when they give me something new, I'll just sit in the hole and (quarterback Rakeem) Cato can just find me."
Shuler has led the Herd in receptions in each of the first three games of 2013. He caught nine passes for 67 yards and a touchdown against Miami (Ohio), five passes for 85 yards and a touchdown against Gardner-Webb and nine passes for 95 yards against Ohio.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said part of it is Shuler's innate ability and part of it is offensive coordinator Bill Legg's scheme.
"He's good at finding openings," Holliday said. "And he's got 'it.' He's kind of got that 'it' factor with him. And Billy does a good job of working to get him one on one, where they can't bracket him."
Holliday also mentioned Marshall's improved running attack - averaging 214.7 yards per game - as another factor. That forces opposing defenses to either load the box to stop the run or walk a defender out to help cover Shuler.
Shuler's production has dwarfed that of the Herd's outside receivers. Three receivers have started at the two outside positions in 2013 - Davonte Allen, Demetrius Evans and Craig Wilkins. Combined, they've caught as many passes this season as Shuler has by himself.
That's a distinct difference from last year, when seniors Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson were on the outside. In the first three games of 2012, Shuler caught 24 passes to Dobson's 24 and Wilson's 15.
Holliday figures Virginia Tech's pass defense, second in the FBS allowing just 106.3 passing yards per game, will do all it can to neutralize Shuler. He said the outside receivers need to make the most of their opportunities, and some of them have so far. He mentioned Wilkins and Devon Smith, who has spent more time on the outside and is third on the team with nine catches.
"If they take away something, you'll have to be able to execute on the outside," Holliday said. "Those guys on the outside have to step up and make plays. Craig stepped up and made a couple Saturday, to be honest, and I think Devon Smith is getting more comfortable out there. There's no doubt those outside guys have to step up and be able to make plays for us."
Shuler is ready for what's to come. He knows he'll be lining up against one of college football's best defenses, one that can disrupt passing games in more ways than one.
"They just put pressure on the quarterback. They don't let you sit back there and pat the ball or give a lot of room to scramble. We have to get some quick plays going early. They're a good team, so we have to get going quick, get in our rhythm fast and have them play to our rhythm instead of playing to their rhythm."
As heavily as Shuler has been targeted this season, both by Cato and opponents' defenses, Cato won't look away from him. He remains confident that his teammate since high school will fight to find the opening, however small it may be.
"I never worry about Tommy," Cato said. "He's a great route-runner and great with his hands. When the matchup is there, we're going to take it."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.