Marshall football: Herd backs benefit from down time
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Coach Martinez versus Coach Van.
Who ya got?
The Marshall running backs were relegated to observers during the team's 15 spring football practices the last five weeks.
Both players weren't healthy enough to participate in the drills because of multiple offseason surgeries, so they passed a football back and forth on the sidelines with three basic objectives: Watch, learn and don't get hurt.
"That's all we could do," Martinez said.
But the rehabilitation time had upside.
The Herd's top two returning rushers could rejuvenate their bodies for the grind of the 2012 season and benefit from mental reps.
"Travon and I approached it like coaches," said Martinez, who led Marshall with 649 rushing yards last season. "We wanted to help."
So, what'd the two take from this spring?
"We took what we knew from last year and added to it," Martinez said. "From watching everything we know the blitzes and we can read all the coverages. Our (position) coach (JaJuan Seider) played quarterback so he makes sure we're aware of everything.
"We can read the safeties just like (Rakeem) Cato reads the safeties at quarterback. We just try to coach the guys up a little bit."
The two hobbled rushers came away with their own impressions of spring drills, which culminated with the annual Green-White game Saturday.
"I've seen our offensive linemen getting at it," said Van, who had 551 rushing yards as a freshman in 2011. "Our new offensive line coach, Geep (Wade), he's been on them. Cato is coming along and the other running backs have stepped up."
Martinez analyzed both sides of the ball.
"I watched everybody grow up," the rising junior said. "Rakeem Cato has taken the next step ... you can see
our offense becoming more explosive. I've watched our team show we've got more players that we can rely on this year.
"Tommy Shuler, he's growing up. Last year he was sort of in a slump and you could tell he was sort of homesick, but he packs his lunch every day and comes out here and does work.
"Zach Dunston at safety and Omar's brother - I call Evan McKelvey 'Omar's brother' - he is becoming a player."
Other than soaking in information, the players have put a premium on their collective health.
In the first few practices, Van was still on crutches. He was on the outside of a wall of players while his teammates competed in the feats of strength circle drill when two deadlocked players spilled into him.
Van hopped away unharmed, but one of his crutches buckled in half under the weight of a teammate.
"He can't get hurt again," Martinez said. "I took it on myself to protect him."
The running backs are on track to be at full health for the start of two-a-days in August, although Van said he would likely have to keep that red "injured" jersey on throughout the preseason.
And while neither is rooting to be sidelined again at Marshall, they'd like to return to the sidelines after their respective playing careers are over.
"Someday I'll be a coach somewhere," Martinez said.
Added Van: "I want to be a head coach and I'd hire Tron as offensive coordinator.
"Hopefully he then goes on and gets his own job so we can battle it out. I want to go head-to-head."
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CATO ENTERED and departed the spring as the Herd's clear-cut starting quarterback.
In three combined intrasquad scrimmages, Cato completed 54-of-87 passes for 668 yards and six touchdowns. The rising true sophomore, who started nine games last season, threw just one interception.
After Saturday's scrimmage, in which he completed 15-of-29 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown, Cato spent time with former Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington.
"It's pretty cool," Cato said. "He's teaching me the basic stuff on how to be a quarterback and a leader on the field and off the field.
"Whenever you can get a guy like that to come talk to you, it is wonderful."
In addition to Cato's passing touchdown Saturday, he opened scoring with a two-yard scoring run. He said Herd fans can expect a speedier signal caller in 2012.
"That's my secret," he said. "I want to catch people slipping. They think I can't run and whatnot, but I'm going to surprise people this year.
"On that play I saw a defensive lineman behind me but there's no way a defensive lineman can catch me.
"Except Vinny Curry."
Contact sportswriter Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.