Dec. 25, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The first time – and last time – that Tommy Shuler played in a bowl game, his performance was hardly memorable.
He was a true freshman finishing his first college football season, and in the Thundering Herd’s 20-10 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl victory over FIU, the slot receiver caught one pass for 7 yards against a team from his hometown.
Two seasons have made quite a difference.
In the sixth annual Military Bowl at 2:30 p.m. Friday, at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, Shuler will be one of the primary concerns for the opposing Maryland defense.
As a sophomore last season, the 5-foot-7 Miamian grabbed a Marshall-record 110 receptions. It didn’t seem possible he could approach that number in 2013. However, as the Herd (9-4) goes against the Terrapins (7-5), he is on the cusp of a second straight 100-catch year.
“It’s a great feeling to get that kind of number again,” Shuler said in the Herd bowl hotel headquarters on Christmas day. “I worked hard in the offseason, and came off a serious injury. The coaches pushed me hard, got me in the right shape, but more important, got me going back hard and back into a football mentality.”
Shuler gave credit to Herd strength and conditioning chief Scott Sinclair, as well as coach Doc Holliday, receivers coach Mike Furrey and offensive coordinator Bill Legg. But it was Shuler who had to bounce back from a fracture in the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, an injury that required surgery and limited his offseason work.
With 97 receptions for 1,097 yards and nine touchdowns, Shuler needs three catches against the Big Ten-bound Terps to become only the eighth receiver in major college history with multiple 100-catch seasons.
He’s the only player in Marshall football annals with more than one 80-catch season. Seven others have one.
And with 3 receiving yards, he will join College Football Hall of Famer Mike Barber and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy Moss as the only Herd players with multiple 1,100-yard years. Barber had three, Moss two.
Add a Troy Brown to the comparative mix, and Shuler’s numbers by comparison to the Herd’s top receivers stands tall.
“It’s a great feeling to be mentioned with those guys,” Shuler said. “I watched them when I grew up, Moss with the Minnesota Vikings, a great receiver. I heard what he did at Marshall (in two seasons). Troy Brown, a legend with the (New England) Patriots. He’s just a great athlete; he was a playmaker.
“Me, I’m just trying to help this program win, leave my legacy here and hopefully go into the NFL and do the same thing as them.”
Last season, 14 FBS receivers had single games of 14 of more catches. Shuler was the only one among them with two. The Herd slot receiver’s 9.2 catches per game led the nation, and his 110 receptions ranked fourth.
If Shuler were concerned about his durability after offseason surgery, he didn’t play like it. But he also knew getting to 100 catches would be more difficult than reaching 110 a year ago. That’s because two 2012 seniors who are prominent on the Herd’s career lists – Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson – were gone.
Defenses have bracketed and double-teamed Shuler and H-back/tight end Gator Hoskins, but they’ve still found ways to get open and produce.
“I needed to be more of a leader on offense this year,” Shuler said. “I came in wanting to help push my teammates around me, because ‘Tay’ and AD were gone. I needed to do more of what they did, know what they knew, how to handle adversity, things like that.
“We had to put the team around us, (quarterback Rakeem) Cato, Gator and me, and still get things done in the passing game to open up the running game, and that happened. We all went out there and produced and that helped us have this big season we’ve had.”
Shuler will finish his second straight All-Conference USA first team season in the Military Bowl. He is one of only four Herd players to be two-time first team picks in Marshall’s nine years in the league (Doug Legursky, Albert McClellan, Vinny Curry are the others).
No one has done it three times, and Shuler has a 2014 season to go, with his longtime Miami and Marshall buddy – Cato – pitching to him. With his next catch, he moves to fourth on the Marshall career chart, behind Josh Davis (306), Darius Watts (272) and Mike Barber (249).
Not bad for a guy who had only 14 receptions as a 2011 freshman.
“What’s most important is we’re winning now,” Shuler said. “When we came in, we wanted to help Marshall get back to where it was in football. Our team was good last year, but this year we added more pieces and it made a big difference.
“We could have gone to a bowl last year (finishing 5-7 with a final-game, bowl-elimination loss in double overtime at East Carolina), but we didn’t have the team we do now. We’ve added players, better players. “Everybody has played a big part in it, and Doc’s got it on a roll right now. He can get players and he can coach. He’s a great coach and he’s building something good at Marshall.”
Shuler, who helped coax Cato into coming to Marshall, knows he is a big part of that. In the last two seasons, he has eight or more catches in 14 of 25 games. He has nine games of 100 or more yards. Denero Marriott is fifth on the MU all-time list in that category, with five. Barber tops that list, with 21.
The Military Bowl receiving records belong to Toledo’s Eric Page (13 catches in 2011 versus Air Force) and East Carolina’s Lance Lewis (137 yards in 2010, against Maryland).
“The bowl game is big for us,” Shuler said. “It’s a chance to play on national TV (ESPN), and my family loves watching me and us in big games. It’s against an ACC team. It’s a chance to show what our program is about now.”
Shuler said the Herd is no longer just about getting to six wins and playing in a bowl game, which is what developed two years ago, when a 6-6 Herd team in Holliday’s second season reached the postseason and won.
The Herd players know that despite a C-USA Championship loss at Rice, a Military Bowl win means 10 victories, the most a Marshall club has had since the 2002 team went 11-2.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Shuler began to answer, delivering one of his favorite responses. “We had a conference championship in our mind the first time we stepped into the weight room for our summer workouts, first time we stepped on the field in camp.
“We knew we had the talent and our team was great enough to win a conference championship and go to a bowl and we weren’t settling for less. We had to win. We played hard, we practiced hard. We didn’t win the championship, but here we are in a bowl we wanted to play in.”
And although Tommy Shuler is just 5-7, he’s a big reason the Herd could spend Christmas thinking about a bowl game, and not the guy with a belly that looked like a bowl full of jelly.