HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Ask Marshall football players to explain tight end Gator Hoskins' end-zone domination and you'll get shrugged shoulders - even from Hoskins himself.
"I can't really explain it," he said. "I'm just getting open and (quarterback Rakeem) Cato is finding me."
If Cato finds him one more time for a touchdown this season, Hoskins will own outright the single-season school record for touchdown catches by a tight end. His first-quarter touchdown catch from Cato in Marshall's 38-28 win over Memphis gave him nine for the season, matching Mike Bartrum and Sean Doctor.
"He just has a smell for the end zone," Cato said. "I don't know how he does it or what it is, but he just has a taste for the end zone."
If there is an answer, Hoskins said it's found in one word - work. Since before this season began, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior has worked on every facet of his game to become a red zone target Cato can't ignore. He'll likely be a prime target for Cato, and a receiver the defense must find, when the Herd travels to Alabama-Birmingham for a 4:30 p.m. game (CSS/WVAH).
Hoskins made the watch list in October for the Mackey Award, given annually to college football's top tight end. This is after a sophomore season where he caught three touchdowns, a mark he matched in this season's loss to Purdue alone. Nearly a third of Hoskins' 30 catches have been touchdowns.
Cato jokes that the other receivers get on Hoskins' case, telling him they want to see him make the "tough" touchdowns, the ones where he's running 40 yards down the field. But red zone touchdowns are nothing easy. Receivers must find holes in tight quarters. And when they get that close to the goal line, the back of the end zone almost becomes a 12th defender.
Hoskins' ability to find daylight comes from trying to improve his footwork and route running.
"You get separation from a defender," he said. "You don't give the defender a chance to undercut you for an interception. Just getting separation makes it an easy throw for Cato."
Receiver Tommy Shuler has become one of college football's most prolific pass-catchers by overcoming the limits of his 5-foot-8, 187-pound frame with precision route-running. He's seen Hoskins work during and outside of the regular season to make his cuts crisp. Shuler said he'll sometimes offer Hoskins advice on how to couple accurate routes with his bigger frame.