HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - When an injured Rakeem Cato yielded to Blake Frohnapfel in Marshall's 2012 season finale at East Carolina, third-string quarterback Gunnar Holcombe was in no danger of losing his redshirt.Not even close. He was watching the game from the couch at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home."They told me the Monday before the game I would be redshirting. I was actually at home," Holcombe said Tuesday. "I went home for Thanksgiving holiday. Freed up a spot [on the team plane] for somebody that played."With a bowl bid on the line, that was a bit of a risk. One of the major goals of this Thundering Herd's camp is to avoid that issue altogether, at least grooming a third game-ready passer.The top two spots are not in dispute. Junior Rakeem Cato is the returning Conference USA most valuable player, and third-year sophomore Blake Frohnapfel could be a top-five QB in the league now.Those two are taking the afternoon shift in the split-squad workouts, which continue today in shoulder pads and helmets. The morning belongs to the two freshmen, Holcombe and Kevin Anderson.This is a prime exhibit in coach Doc Holliday's split-squad philosophy. It gives his freshmen a near-even split over nine or 10 hours of practice time, much more than they are likely to receive when the team works out together for the first time Friday.
"I think it's a huge benefit," said Bill Legg, the offensive coordinator who now tutors quarterbacks. "Back in the day, the freshmen had two, three days by themselves. And they got to hear the offense, and they got the techniques at a pace that was different than the varsity was being taught."When the varsity came in, they were hearing it for the second time instead of it all being brand new. So now, with those guys being out here [in split squads], they're getting a lot of reps. If we practiced as an entire football team right now, what are we going to focus on?"We're going to focus on that two, two and a half, max three-deep. Which means that all those guys who were here all summer, you're going to go with those guys first because of the experience factor. Now, we've got a real shot at getting a legitimate evaluation on whether or not they can become ready to help us this fall."That won't just be done with the naked eye, for certain. A particular pass may look bad, but was it poor mechanics, a poorly run route by a young receiver or something else? So when Anderson threw an interception to walk-on safety Mark Shaver and then Holcombe threw a touchdown to University of Charleston transfer Cody Carter, does that really have a bearing?
Maybe or maybe not, but these reps are getting important. If a clear No. 3 emerges by the end of Thursday morning - or if a clear No. 4 falls to the wayside - that could set the tone for the rest of the month, if not the season.That, and a third-stringer could end up playing with a game on the line. That hasn't happened often at quarterback recently at MU, unless you count the crazy 2011 situation in which Cato was backed up by an emergency option for the bowl game.And Legg has seen depth charts empty out elsewhere in his current Marshall tenure."It happened year one here ," Legg said. "Now, it didn't happen at quarterback, it happened at a number of other positions. It happened last year on defense, where they had a mass of injuries. Shoot, we were taking offensive guys and trying to put them over there and then they got hurt.
"Garrett Scott, I wish we never would have had to play him, but he ended up playing about 100 snaps because we had a bunch of injuries. He was a guy we had every intention of redshirting."Holcombe and Anderson aren't coming in cold. Holcombe has that redshirt season under his belt, while Anderson graduated from high school early and went through MU's spring season."Last camp, fall, I was all over the place," Holcombe said. "I knew the basics [he ran a similar system in high school], but you know it in the room and come out here and it's so much faster. I've got more understanding of the plays; just try to get better every day and I've got a long way to go."Anderson may be ahead of where the other three quarterbacks were in their first fall camps, but he is still having his freshman culture shock, it seems."This is Kevin's first camp and he was like, 'Man, I didn't know it was like this,' " Frohnapfel said. "I said, 'We were telling you it's hard.' I know I was [intimidated] then. It's good not to deal with the growing pains anymore."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.