HUNTINGTON - At 5-foot-8, 187 pounds, Tommy Shuler can get lost in a crowd.Which, for the Marshall sophomore wide receiver, is the point. He enjoys getting lost amid opposing defenses, as long as one person finds him - his quarterback.More and more, that is happening, and not just because he has played catch with Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato for all of his football-playing life. Shuler is getting better and better at one of those basic football concepts that can't always be measured.Getting open.
Shuler, a sophomore generally working on the first unit at his accustomed role of slot receiver, should easily top last year's 14 catches for 122 yards. He didn't come far from that at the Herd's early scrimmage last week, where he caught eight passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.The scoring play may have best summed up his talents. He sneaked behind safety Dominick LeGrande just behind the goal line, just long enough for Cato to find him. LeGrande had no chance at the pass."Tommy Shuler's the big surprise, [improvement] from freshman to sophomore year," said wide receivers coach Gerad Parker. "He's a crafty guy. You look at him a little bit when he runs out here, and you'll think, 'I don't know,' but the matter of fact is he knows how to play football."He's got a great relationship with Cato, they've played together a long time. He knows how to get open, understands his body and his feet, gets open, does a great job. He's got great hands."Shuler says he is still getting accustomed to the college game, but the game is "slowing down" for him, much like it is for Cato. All the reps, all the work in the video room, all that coaching is rubbing off."It isn't how the routes are, it's how you read a defense," Shuler said. "You read a triangle [of defenders], then you get the ball. Getting open is a big thing in my game."Sometimes, that chemistry with Cato comes in handy. On one particular play Saturday, Shuler said, "I knew he was going to throw the ball low because there was a defender right there. I did a baseball slide and caught the ball. I just started laughing, and he started laughing."It's just the little things we know about each other."Andre Booker, the taller and speedier slot receiver, is trying to replicate that chemistry as best as he can. While he is pushing Shuler for playing time, both can share the field in certain formations, particularly in a four-wide.Booker is a senior who will get the bulk of returns, but he is still making a name for himself in the slot. Remember, the 5-10, 176-pound Sarasota, Fla., native began his Marshall career in the backfield and was moved to wide receiver, where he has played every position.So while Booker is an elder statesman in relation to Shuler, Shuler has the experience at the position.
"Everybody forgets he's played receiver for [only] two years, and less than that, really," Parker said of Booker. "He moved in the spring of my first year here  and didn't get to go through spring because of shoulder surgery. He came back last fall and we moved him around, slot, wide and he ended up backing up A.D. last year."So he's only been a slot this time in spring  until now. He's so much better - he's keeping his feet under his hips better, doing so many things. He gives us a vertical presence in the slot that some of those other guys can't give."Don't discount the importance of Booker keeping his feet under his hips. He has lost several touchdowns, on returns or receptions, by losing his balance and hitting the deck without contact."That's what I've been working on all summer, plyometrics and balance," Booker said. "My mom, she tried to talk me into doing ballet, but I wasn't really comfortable with that. That's all I've been working on all summer, balance, just having my mind controlling my feet."This year, I will be on my feet a lot."And he'll try to pick up a pointer or two from Shuler. Booker presents a bad speed mismatch for most linebackers, but he has to catch the ball first. So he must get open.
"Shuler, he's got a great field IQ," Booker said. "He's got good wiggle, he's got a feel for the game. I'm sure he's been playing slot receiver for years."He's just exciting to watch, for me. I just like watching him play."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.