Oct. 23, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - It isn't always father who knows best. Sometimes, it's grandfather.
This summer, Tommy Shuler was home briefly in Miami, and the Marshall sophomore slot receiver was in a conversation with his grandfather, Freddie Walker, about the Thundering Herd's 2012 season.
The subject turned to Shuler's prospects after his 14-catch performance as a true freshman in 2011.
And when his grandpa asked about how many catches Shuler could make from his Herd and hometown quarterback, classmate and roommate buddy, Rakeem Cato, Shuler gave the same answer he gave me when I wondered about a number in a Monday interview.
"Uh," Shuler said, "I don't know."
Then, Shuler went deeper.
"My granddaddy, he challenged me," Shuler said. "He asked me, `Can you catch 100 balls?'
"I just laughed at him. I was like, `That's crazy.' And he said, `You can do it.'
"Once he did, I figured I had to go out and prove something. And I felt like, if he wanted me to do that, I should go for it. He's my granddaddy."
Well, Shuler is going for it in a big way. As the Herd (3-4, 2-1 Conference USA) prepares to meet visiting UCF (5-2, 3-0) on Saturday night in a crucial East Division game, Shuler's 69 receptions rank second nationally to the 73 by West Virginia senior Tavon Austin.
The Herd record is 106, by Division I-AA All-American Mike Barber in 1987. Shuler's 69 catches are the most for a Herd player since Josh Davis had 86 in 2004. Only seven players in Marshall history have more than 80 receptions.
Shuler is currently tied with Ricky Carter for 17th on the single-season list (see list below), and he owns the school single-game record with 19 catches in a loss at Purdue last month.
The NCAA record for catches in an FBS season belongs to Freddie Barnes, who had 155 for Bowling Green in 2009.
The 5-foot-7 Shuler studies tape prolifically to learn defenses' tendencies, and his 11 catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns in last Saturday's romp at Southern Mississippi was thanks in part to something he noticed watching the Golden Eagles' recent history.
"On third down, they were going to man (coverage) a lot, almost all the time, and rolling down the safety," Shuler said. "So I told Rakeem to take some shots with that safety roiling down. With the safety rolling down, he's looking for the run, so we took a lot of shots on third down."
There's little question that the Herd's hurry-up offense and its personnel versatility in attacking defenses have aided Shuler's cause, as has his years-old buddy system with Cato.
But the sophomore receiver is on a 118-reception pace in the regular season, a number that could soar if the Herd reaches the C-USA title game and/or a bowl.
"He's not the fastest guy on field (4.77 in the 40 yards), and not the biggest guy on the field, obviously, but the things Tommy does are about his knowledge of how to play football, his experience in this game," Cato said. "He just takes advantage of that in his route-running. We just connect on all cylinders. He knows what I'm doing; I know what he's doing. And he's a special receiver."
Ask Shuler how he gets the numbers he does, and his response often is - as it was after his record 19 grabs at Purdue - "I just go out and play ball."
He isn't asked to stretch the defense much vertically, but trying to cover him is a horizontal horror show for a defense. He finds the seams, well, seamlessly. He also has another powerful tool - his confidence.
"I use my footwork and timing mostly," Shuler said. "I feel like I can go out there and do anything; I feel like I can get open any time. Cato will be looking for me in `hot' situations and I can't let him down, so I have to get open so he can find me."
Cato concedes that when things go "hot," Shuler is the first receiver he looks for. It's a by-product of their pitch-and-catch years that have taken them from Miami to Marshall.
"We watch tape, all season we watch together at times," Cato said. "I teach what route it is, how to beat a guy in a certain way. And Tommy can adjust to it. He lets me know how I can help him, too, where to get him the ball so he can be open. It's communication."
Shuler said he and Cato talk on the field before games about what routes they think might be open, then revisit the discussion once the game begins.
"We go out and check out the first series," Shuler said. "We have a great idea of what they're doing then, and what works and what we can do against it."
What also seems to work for Shuler is a bit of the surprise factor.
"I always hear about my size when I go out onto the field," the Herd receiver said. "Like, `Oh, you look bigger on film. You're a little guy.' So when I go out there later and I've made some catches they'll say, `You're a handful.' I just go and start laughing, because it's funny."
Well, it's funny unless you're charged with shadowing Shuler.
"The sky's the limit for him," Cato said when asked how many balls he thought Shuler could catch this season. He has great hands. Every ball I throw to him, he catches -- low ball, high ball, ugly ball, he catches it. He knows what he's doing. The plays he's making out there sometimes are spectacular.
"I'm not surprised by any of it. When things go `hot,' I know Tommy's going to win.
"He's always been that receiver from where, if something goes wrong, I can find him, and he makes a play for me. My expectations of him are always high."
They're probably just as high as those of Shuler's granddaddy.
Most receptions, single season, top 20
Rank Rec Player Season
1. 106 Mike Barber 1987
2. 101 Troy Brown 1992
3. 96 Sean Doctor 1987
4. 91 Darius Watts 2001
5. 90 Randy Moss 1997
6. 86 Josh Davis 2004
(tie) 86 Denero Marriott 2002
8. 79 Josh Davis 2001
(tie) 79 Mike Barber 1988
10. 78 Randy Moss 1996
11. 75 Josh Davis 2002
12. 74 Tim Martin 1996
(tie) 74 LaVorn Colclough 1997
14. 71 Nate Poole 1999
(tie) 71 Darius Watts 2002
16. 70 Nate Poole 2000
17. 69 Ricky Carter 1993
(tie) 69 Tommy Shuler 2012 (and counting)
19. 67 Tim Martin 1994
20. 66 Cody Slate 2007