Marshall football: Record-setting Shuler making his mark
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - In the past two seasons, Marshall wide receiver Tommy Shuler has soared into the upper echelon of Thundering Herd pass-catchers. Only three others in Marshall history have at least two 1,000-yard receiving seasons. No other receiver in Marshall history has two seasons with at least 80 catches.
Ask Shuler, and he'll tell you he felt he was a top-caliber receiver as soon as he walked on campus from Miami Central High School. His stats, and his playing time, as a freshman don't match that - and Shuler takes full blame for that.
"I feel I could have been put in that category when I first got here, but I feel like I was being lazy and not working as hard as I usually do," he said, "so the light came on in my head that I've got to get going and I've got to do extra."
That extra work has made him the top target of Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato, as well as the top target of the Rice secondary entering this Saturday's Conference USA title game in Houston (noon, ESPN2).
Shuler's freshman season numbers did not look like those of a player who would rewrite Marshall's record books. He caught just 14 passes for 122 yards in 10 games. Eight players finished ahead of him on the Herd's 2011 receiving charts. That was a different reality than the one Shuler was used to. While in Miami, he caught for more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in his high school career.
But that different reality is one many young players experience, MU offensive oordinator Bill Legg said.
"You're a kid that's been highly successful in high school, Tommy Shuler being one of them, and they walk in and they expect things to be the same," Legg said. "They're competing now against guys who are four years older than them. They're learning a new language. There are different techniques and the speed is different at the collegiate level. It takes work and it takes diligence and it doesn't just happen by accident."
Shuler wanted to become the target that receivers like Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson were in Marshall's offense, especially since Shuler's high school teammate Cato was the man throwing the passes. So, beginning in the offseason before his sophomore year, he never shied away from hard work.
"I have to catch extra balls," he said. "I can't let balls hit the ground when I'm at practice. I have go for everything and make sure I can make the hard catch. The hard catch gets you going a long way. I have that in my mind in every practice."
That work paid dividends in 2012, as Shuler climbed to the top of the single-season receiving charts. His 110 catches beat the previous record of 106 set by Mike Barber in 1987. His 1,138 yards were the 11th-best single season total in Herd history.
Shuler entered 2013 as an all-Conference USA first-team wideout with a large target on his back. Wilson and Dobson were gone and now the focus of every opposing defense would fall upon him. He's responded with 89 catches - the seventh-best season in Marshall history - and 1,019 yards. He's also caught a career-high nine touchdowns and his yards-per-catch average has jumped from 10.3 in 2012 to 11.4 this season.
He credits a lot of that success to receivers coach Mike Furrey, who led the NFC with 98 receptions for the Detroit Lions in 2006. Furrey said Shuler has been a model student.
"If you just look at his route-running in general, he's become a heck of a route-runner," Furrey said. "You can guide them and teach them the little things, but he still has to go out and understand them and execute them and be comfortable with them and he's taken that. It's been a lot of fun to watch him and he's allowed himself to get more open."
With a secondary that features two standout corners in Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan, Shuler is in store for another four quarters of being a marked man versus a stout defense. He feels, though, that his effort on the practice field will have him ready for Saturday.
"Knowing you've worked so hard and people are preparing to stop you and you're still making big plays for your team, that just tells you that work helps you come a long way," he said.
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.