Military Bowl: Hoskins' place in Herd history is secure
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Harold "Gator" Hoskins left high school as a quarterback. He wanted to come to Marshall University as a wide receiver. His head coach saw in him a potential safety. But he's leaving the Thundering Herd as one of the best tight ends in program history.
It was a roundabout route the senior took to find his niche on Marshall's roster, but he grew into it - literally and figuratively - quite well. He used the skills that made him so dangerous in his previous positions and melded that with a body befitting his current one to become one of the most prolific scoring threats in college football and the best scoring tight end in Marshall history.
Hoskins caps his record-setting career today when the Herd faces Maryland in the Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (2:30 p.m., ESPN), and he gets one more chance to climb even higher in Marshall's annals.
Hoskins showed a knack for scoring production at Eastside High in Gainesville, Fla., though it was from under center. He was a quarterback in the team's wing-T offense and accounted for 20 touchdowns as a senior, 10 passing and 10 rushing. Hoskins figured he could use his athleticism to help the Herd score, too, except by catching passes rather than tossing them.
"When I first got here, I told the coaches I wanted to play receiver," he said. "So I'm thinking, hey, I'm going to be a receiver. I'm going to come in, contribute, play a little bit my freshman year and if not, redshirt. I'd just help the team out the best way I could at receiver. I wasn't expecting to be a tight end."
Marshall's coaches weren't exactly expecting it either. Coach Doc Holliday looked at Hoskins and figured he could become a safety. Offensive coordinator Bill Legg said he had the frame that, if he started out as a safety, he could bulk up and become a linebacker. But Hoskins started out at receiver, a short-lived stint once he did start bulking up.
"All of a sudden, he walks in here and he's 225," Legg said. "And we were like, huh, this guy would make a great H-back and become a great tight end as we move forward."
Hoskins admits that he didn't realize the potential he had at tight end. His coaches realized it for him. Wide receivers normally tip the scales at something smaller than 225, so transforming into a tight end became necessary. But that transformation was more than physical. Quarterbacks are taught to avoid contact. Tight ends are taught to embrace it.
Now Hoskins had to learn what football was like with a hand in the dirt.
"That part was changing a mindset," Hoskins said. "I wasn't used to that before. You're getting touched every play and you have to be physical up front. It was just something I had to get my mind prepared for and get the mindset to be tough and be a go-getter."
It was a tackling drill during Hoskins' freshman year that gave him an idea that he could flourish at this foreign position. He had a defensive end bearing down on him during that drill and, when that end popped him, he wondered if this new role would fit him. On the next go-round, when he got the better of that end, he figured he was all right.
Legg also convinced Hoskins that this job was for him by referencing past players with similar stories. Dustin Keller, a tight end and Mackey Award semifinalist during Legg's time on Purdue's staff, was the prime example. Keller, Legg said, entered college as a 207-pound receiver, took a redshirt, then grew to 225 pounds. He finished his career at 242 pounds, was named second-team all-Big Ten in 2007 and was a first-round pick of the New York Jets in 2008.
"I'm sure he wasn't overly ecstatic when we first moved him, just like Keller wasn't overly ecstatic when we first moved him," Legg said. "And I can name numbers and numbers of players I remember sitting in my office and crying because, 'I want to stay at this position. I don't want to play that position.'
"But at the end of the day," he continued, "what's best for the kid is what's best for the team. And what was best for Gator was to move to tight end because it eventually it was going to be best for the team."
That really became evident in 2012, when Hoskins became a major component in the Herd's high-powered passing game. He caught 10 touchdowns last season, breaking the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end, which Mike Bartrum and Sean Doctor shared with nine scores.
Hoskins outdid himself this season, catching 13 touchdowns in Marshall's first 13 games. That mark ties him with James Williams and Brian Dowler for fifth on the overall single-season touchdown reception chart. He's a reliable scorer as well, catching at least one touchdown in nine of those 13 games.
Hoskins credits Legg for calling plays that make him a prominent red-zone target. But coaches and teammates credit Hoskins for the work he's put in both in and out of season. He and quarterback Rakeem Cato text message each other all the time, with Hoskins asking Cato to work on passing routes. Cato's never been one to shy away from work, and he respects Hoskins for sharing the same high standards.
"The whole offseason, we just went hard," Cato said. "Gator's a big guy and he uses his body. He's just turned it up a whole notch this year. He's a great tight end and a great guy to be around."
Hoskins hearkens back to old roles in order to enhance his tight end skills. The athleticism he showed in high school hasn't gone anywhere, but has found a home inside Hoskins' 6-foot-2, 244-pound frame. He still has the ability to make acrobatic catches and create matchup nightmares for linebackers and safeties.
"He's basically a wideout in a tight end's body," Holliday said. "That's what we want in our tight ends."
And the football IQ that made him such a potent high school quarterback has helped him in his current job. Tight ends coach Todd Hartley said such football knowledge makes it easy to place a player at quarterback, and it makes Hoskins even more dangerous at tight end.
"He's a second coach in our meeting room," Hartley said. "I'm in there and telling our guys about this and this, and he's saying, 'Hey Coach, look at this,' and he's pointing stuff out that sometimes I don't even see. He's an extra set of eyes. He's a great voice and a great example for my young kids."
Hoskins will leave the tight end room to those younger players like Eric Frohnapfel, Devon Johnson and Deontay McManus, but not before he gets one last game in a Herd uniform against the Terrapins. One more touchdown catch would break the tie he has with Mike Barber for third all-time in Marshall history. Both have 26. He has three touchdowns to go before he ties Troy Brown for the fourth-best single-season total with 16. But Hoskins has a pair of three-touchdown games under his belt - last season versus Purdue and this season versus Florida International.
Mainly, he wants to offer another example of how success comes to those who persevere in looking for a home on the football field, even if that search takes a few stops along the way.
"It's a blessing and an honor," Hoskins said. "It just goes to show all the hard work I put in and all the long hours. It just shows the love and passion I have for the game."
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.