HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall’s football team knows exactly what it has with its starting quarterback, Rakeem Cato — a rising senior who was Conference USA’s MVP two seasons ago and its offensive player of the year last season. What the Thundering Herd has behind Cato is much more of a mystery, and coach Doc Holliday doesn’t want to take long to solve it.
“We all know Cato can play, but we’ve got to get a backup,” Holliday said during his pre-spring-practice press conference Monday. “If you don’t have a guy at that position, that’s an issue.”
When the Herd takes the Joan C. Edwards Stadium field this afternoon for the first of 15 spring practices, the hunt for Marshall’s new No. 2 quarterback will be among the staff’s top priorities.
A hole opened at backup when Blake Frohnapfel, who held the position for the previous two seasons, decided to transfer to the University of Massachusetts in search of more playing time. He performed admirably as Cato’s understudy, but his departure left the Herd with no one outside Cato who has taken snaps in a college football game.
One of the remaining quarterbacks — rising redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holcombe, rising redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson or incoming freshman Cole Garvin — will take the spot Frohnapfel vacated. Holliday hopes that can be decided by the end of the spring, which culminates with the April 26 Green and White Game.
“We’ll just give them equal reps, initially,” Holliday said. “If somebody becomes a clear-cut guy early, of course he’s going to get more reps. It’s critical that we come out of the spring with a backup, and all three of those guys are going to need to get reps early.
“Hopefully,” he continued, “by the middle of the spring, we get it down to just a couple of them and maybe, by the end, even down to one.”
Holliday, whose team finished 10-4 last season with a C-USA East Division title and a Military Bowl win over Maryland, said practice schedules will be somewhat tailored to giving the three young quarterbacks as many snaps as possible. For instance, today’s practice will include five extra minutes of 7-on-7 drills for Holcombe, Anderson and Garvin.
Cato won’t be twiddling his thumbs, Holliday said, but he’ll likely spend a lot of time as a mentor to the trio of younger passers in order to find his backup.
“There are probably going to be times where he’s sitting over there, coaching and watching,” Holliday said. “He’s going to be mad at me during practice, when he’s over there watching, because he’s going to want to be in there competing.”
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HOLLIDAY SAID running back Kevin Grooms, who had been suspended since his Nov. 30 arrest on misdemeanor domestic battery and obstruction charges, will practice this spring. Grooms, the 2012 conference freshman of the year, was hobbled early in 2013 with a sprained ankle and finished the season with 503 yards and six touchdowns on 91 carries.
Three more players — linebackers Neville Hewitt and Kent Turene and offensive lineman Tyler Combs — will either be limited this spring or out of the session entirely. Holliday said Hewitt (neck) will be on the field, but Holliday said “he won’t do a lot.” Turene (knee) and Combs (ankle) will miss the whole month.
This is the second spring that Turene has been injured. He injured his ankle early last spring and was lost for the rest of it after surgery.
“He’s done a great job academically and has a great attitude,” Holliday said of Turene. “For a guy who was as highly recruited as he was to come in and have as many unfortunate injuries as he’s had, he’s stayed positive and he’s working his tail off. He’ll get a break at some point. He needs one.”
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THE HERD SAW more success last season than it did in more than a decade. Before hitting the 10-win plateau in 2013, Marshall hadn’t reached that mark since the GMAC Bowl-winning team of 2002 that finished 11-2. Holliday said one mission for this spring is to ensure complacency doesn’t set in with the 2014 team.
Holliday feels the burden of that responsibility won’t have to fall on the coaching staff. A number of veteran leaders — like Cato, rising senior receiver Tommy Shuler, rising redshirt senior center Chris Jasperse and sixth-year defensive lineman James Rouse — will take the initiative in that department.
“The reason we became a good football team a year ago was because of the leadership that was developed throughout the year,” Holliday said. “This time last year, I couldn’t name a handful of guys I felt that way about, but there’s a lot of them out there right now.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.