Aug 16, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Those new in-vogue hybrids aren’t only being sold on car dealers’ lots. The same kind of model is getting plenty of play at Marshall football camp, too.
After displaying one of the nation’s top offenses last season, the Thundering Herd is making a few tweaks and twists to try and get more octane.
One way is to change what has been the basic tight end position.
So, instead of having one line up tight against a tackle or split into the slot, the Herd tight ends have been doubling as de-facto fullbacks.
Yes, these are the new H-backs … Herd-backs.
And yes, that’s Mackey Award watch-listed senior tight end Gator Hoskins getting handoffs from quarterback Rakeem Cato, or blocking for a running back … or maybe even Eric Frohnapfel getting a rare inside handoff from his twin, backup QB Blake Frohnapfel – bringing new meaning to the “Froh-to-Froh” aerial play-on-words coined last season.
Then, there’s converted linebacker and one-time high school star running back Devon Johnson proving he can go to tight end or play the slot – where Hoskins has partially made a living in recent seasons.
“I never, ever thought that I’d be in the backfield,” Hoskins said after Friday’s morning workout, on the eve of the Herd’s second scrimmage of the August camp. “Even though they recruited me as an ‘athlete,’ I thought maybe they’d put me at receiver, but no way in the backfield.
“It’s not too much of a change for me, except sometimes I might get to carry the ball. I ran the ball some in high school, but never from the running back position. Never. It isn’t too much different, really. I feel like I’m an athlete I can do it. We’ve been practicing it quite a bit, and I’m kind of getting used to it now.”
Hoskins, of Gainesville, Fla., set a Herd tight end record with 10 touchdowns last season. That number led all FBS tight ends. Is this change madness?
No, there’s a method to this H-back hullabaloo.
“Last year if you go back, to get a bigger body in the backfield like that, we had to sub in a Devon Johnson, a more traditional fullback,” said Marshall tight ends coach Todd Hartley, who coached safeties last season before Coach Doc Holliday had six staff changes and moved Hartley to offense. ‘Now, you’ve got Gator, who’s stronger, has more mass, Froh is getting bigger and Devon is going to tight end. That’s what we wanted to see, if we could make kind of a ‘hybrid’ -- everybody wants to use that word.
“Gator never has been in backfield before, but he was a great athlete in high school. You can see we’re handing off to him sometimes, and he’s doing some really good out of the backfield. We knew what Devon could do, he was great (Richlands, Va.) high school back, but we didn’t know how he’d fare at tight end. He looks like a natural out there. It’s been really good in this camp to see what they can do.”
Hartley said there’s no telling how much the Herd might employ Hoskins and Co. alongside Cato in a shotgun T with a running back on the quarterback’s other flank.
“It all depends on who we’re playing, what they do or are doing, on matchups,” Hartley said. “I can’t give you a number or a percentage. Obviously, we’re doing it a lot now, so we want to use it in a game. You don’t want to practice what you’re not going to use. I can tell you we like what we’ve seen.
“We knew what Gator can do at tight end, but it’s been surprising, a real positive, what he can do in the backfield. It’s been a big positive to see what Devon can do at tight end and in the slot. Froh, you really would not like to have him back there but if you had to, he would buckle that chinstrap up a little bit tighter, tie his shoes a little bit tighter and go do it. And he can.”
Hoskins weighs 244 pounds, Johnson 240 and Frohnapfel 227. Most importantly, they’re all stronger than a year ago, and their new physicality has arrived at the right time – going against a retooled Herd aggressive defense that could be nicknamed for its coordinator -- “Chuck’s Heater.”
“This defense is a lot better, a lot tougher than last year,” Hoskins said. “Last year it was more zone, and now they’re in man, all up in your face, so you’ve got to work releases, using your hands to get off. I’m using my hands a lot different now.”
There’s no question in Hartley’s mind on what’s the difference for his hybrids from last season to 2013.
“The physicality in the backfield,” Hartley said. “There are times where they have to go full speed ahead and they’re 7 yards off on a linebacker, hitting them head on, and that’s just not a natural thing for them to do.
“And they’ve done it. They’ve not shied down one time, and every time you ask them to do it, they do it. No back away.”
Hoskins said the recognition of the Mackey Watch List “is all right, but I’d rather win a conference (USA) championship. I just want to go out and do whatever it takes for us to win.”
“The biggest thing for me is my blocking is better, a lot better, attacking at the line, point of attack, moving my feet, putting my facemask in there. I’ve been working on my footwork all summer. Coach Hartley has been emphasizing a mindset. It’s a mental thing, so that’s what I’ve been working on.”
Hoskins said he doesn’t have any numbers in mind for his final Herd season. Neither does his position coach, who could be called “Hybrid Hartley” now.
“All those guys have to know all three positions – tight end, fullback, slot,” Hartley said. ‘There’s a big learning curve there, but these guys accepted the challenge. Gator been very successful out in the slot; that’s still there and we won’t change that.
“The thing with this hybrid position is what we really hit on is a mindset. The thing I wanted to change is the physicality at that position. They’ve kind struggled in the past at the point of attack, to block at that position, and we wanted to change our complete mindset at that position.
“We aren’t just glorified big receivers out there catching balls with pretty wristbands and nice colorful gloves. That’s not what we do.
“We get dirty. We get our facemask on people. We hit people. We’re physical. That’s the mindset we are changing. I’m not worried about that. I just want them to go 110 percent every day and go hit somebody.”