Oct. 30, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Tommy Shuler and Gator Hoskins admit they’ve found receiving life more difficult this football season than in 2012.
That’s what happens when you produce like the Marshall slot receiver and tight end, respectively, produce like they did a year ago.
With then-seniors Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson catching most of the opponents’ coverage attention – not to mention a combined 126 passes – Shuler and Hoskins had field days in their own ways.
As a sophomore, Shuler set the Thundering Herd single-season record with 110 receptions. His 9.2 catches per game led the nation. Only 26 players in NCAA major college history have more catches in a single season than Shuler’s 110.
As a junior, Hoskins made the most of his 35 receptions in 2012, with 10 touchdowns – a Herd record for a tight end and a number that led all FBS players at his position. He has 19 career TD catches, ranking 10th in school history to eight wideouts and Cody Slate (a tight-end MU record 23 from 2006-09).
Now, Dobson and Wilson have graduated, Shuler and Hoskins are drawing a defensive crowd … while still managing to produce, albeit in frustration sometimes.
Shuler has 49 catches in seven games. Six of Hoskins’ 19 receptions are for scores. And the former said he expects more good things moving forward as the Herd (4-3, 2-1) returns home Saturday for a noon Conference USA kickoff against Southern Miss (0-7, 0-3).
“In that (51-49 loss at Middle Tennessee on Oct. 24), we scored 49 points,” the 5-foot-7 Miamian said. “Our running game really picked up (213 yards), and when that happens, it opens things up for our passing game. We were able to get more open in that game.
“We haven’t put up that many points in a long time, so that helps our confidence, 49 points, a great feeling. We need to do that. We’ve got to go five straight (wins) now. I know we can do it. I know we can pull it out of the hat and do it.”
In the loss to Middle, Shuler and Hoskins combined for 13 of the Herd’s 19 receptions. They had 149 yards and two touchdowns. In the game, Shuler’s six catches moved him into ninth place among Marshall career receivers, passing Randy Moss and John “Fuzzy” Filliez (168).
Shuler needs four catches for eighth place (Ricky Carter) and 15 to pass Wilson for No. 7.
“It’s great, passing someone like Randy Moss,” Shuler said. “I know that’s a big name that everybody knows, a guy who accomplished a lot in football. I just want to keep grinding and be a Marshall great like (Moss).
“I want to be known as one of the great Marshall receivers when I’m done. It’s a great feeling, but winning the game is more important.”
Hoskins has been impressive in the Herd’s last two outings, a win at Florida Atlantic and a loss at Middle Tennessee, both decided on the final play. His tiptoeing sideline catch on a late Herd drive at FAU, following a touchdown the previous series, put the Herd in position to win. His seven catches led Marshall in its loss the last time out.
"We can build on what we had," Hoskins said after the game in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “We had a nice run game and a couple good completions. We got back to the normal offense, but we fell a little short.”
And in returning to more of its hurry-up tempo that worked with great success last year, Hoskins said it gave coach Doc Holliday’s team an advantage.
“The defense can’t get set that when we’re doing that,” Hoskins said. “We get more things open. Defenses are trying to do different things, putting extra guys in the box, and we haven’t been winning a lot of one-on-one matchups, from the tight ends, the receivers. We’ve got to still do a lot better winning one-on-one matchups.”
Hoskins said Shuler is getting a lot of bracketing and double teams. The tight end has experienced some of the same, but not as much as his younger teammate.
“A couple of games they bracketed outside receivers,” Hoskins said. “At FAU, they bracketed Shuler a lot and MooMoo (Devon Smith) a little bit. It still comes down to winning the one-on-one matchups, no matter where you are, outside, inside.
“People are giving us a lot of different looks. Maybe teams are going to keep copying that, so we’ve got to be prepared for that.
“It’s much tougher for Shuler and me than (2012). Last year we had Dobson (26 receptions for 324 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie for the New England Patriots) and Tay, and when we went into the season, a lot of people game-planned around Dobson.
“That gave me a chance to get open, make a couple of plays. But this year, they’re game-planning me and Shuler, and it’s a lot tougher to make plays … but the bottom line is we still have got to make plays.”
While the Herd continues to look for more production downfield from receivers, tight ends coach Todd Hartley said Hoskins’ play in the H-back schemes Marshall introduced to its offense this season has paid dividends.
“He was the main one that we wanted to see, could he do it, because he missed all of the spring (injured),” Hartley said of the “fullback” segment of the H-back position. “Devon (Johnson), we knew he could do the fullback part of it; the concern was could he play the tight end part of it. Gator has done a phenomenal job adjusting to being that H-back, and that’s why we’re now able to do all of the stuff we’re doing on offense.
“The faster you go, the less coverage you see. I think we’re doing a lot with him, and there’s not much more you can do unless you change a formation, and put him in a specific formation. Right now, he’s not seeing a lot of bracketing, but some he is. And when it happens, you’ve got to win, somebody’s got to step up.”
Hoskins, who was a quarterback in high school in Gainesville, Fla., said the Herd has used the H-back set with good results.
“It’s worked out pretty well, and it’s giving us a lot of different looks,” the senior tight end said. “If teams want to bring extra linebacker into the box, I can go out wide. If they want to bring an extra corner, nickel, whatever, line me up in the backfield and I’ve got to block him and he’s a much smaller guy, so it’s working out to our advantage so far.”
Whatever the numbers, Shuler and Hoskins are better players a year older. And the attention they draw underscores that fact.
“We knew going into the season, without those two guys out there (Dobson and Wilson), they were going to focus on Shuler and Gator,” Hartley said. “Through (seven) games, go back and look at how other defenses have played us, and that’s what they’re doing.
“With the (foes’) defense doing that, Gator’s still making some plays. Six touchdowns in seven games, that’s pretty impressive considering the coverage. And we always talk about winning one-on-ones, we’ve got to do that, and for the most part, Gator has done a nice job with that.
“There’s only one football and we’ve got a lot of playmakers, and he’s done a nice job of knowing his role, playing it, being smart, being unselfish, being a guy we can count on. He’s made plays, his preparation is good, his practice habits and the way he approaches practice has been good and that carries over to the game.”
Shuler appreciates getting numbers and his longtime buddy relationship with quarterback Rakeem Cato dating to playground days in Miami is a plus. With 11 more catches, Shuler will become only the ninth receiver in Herd history with at least two 60-catch seasons.
There’s more to the game he wants, however.
“When you lose like we did (at Middle), it’s hard, but you’ve just got to go out and practice and there’s no looking back,” Shuler said. “We’ve got Southern Miss coming in, and they’re obviously hungry, their record doesn’t reflect what they can do.
“We’ve got to go out and play Marshall football, not worry about other things. If we play the way we can, we’ll get where we want to go. Give our home fans something good to talk about … we haven’t been home for a long time.
“We’ve got to go out and not worry about whether we’re offense or defense. We’ve got to worry about what’s ahead of us, a conference championship still out there, a big bowl game if we play the way we can.
“We’ve got to go out and know we can’t take any losses and play like we know that. We can’t look back at any losses and ask why. Just go out and play the game.”