HUNTINGTON — Marshall’s tight ends not named Gator Hoskins had plenty of opportunities last spring to run with the first-string offense. Yet they did so knowing that probably wouldn’t carry over into 2013’s fall. Hoskins was recovering from shoulder and back surgeries last March, and the other tight ends knew that, when he was healthy, one of the most productive tight ends in program history would reclaim his starting spot.
Fast forward to this spring. Hoskins became the most productive tight end in Thundering Herd history. He also graduated. Now each of the tight ends’ reps are an audition to fill the gap left by one of Marshall’s most prolific offensive players ever.
There are four tight ends on the spring depth chart — senior Eric Frohnapfel, junior Devon Johnson, redshirt junior Joe Woodrum and freshman Deon-Tay McManus. This is McManus’ first spring after sitting last season as an academic non-qualifier. Woodrum, with one catch for 26 yards last season, was used more on special teams than in the Herd offense.
That leaves Frohnapfel and Johnson to battle for the top spot. Herd tight ends coach Todd Hartley said he has a good problem in having two veteran, experienced tight ends to carry the load. He said Frohnapfel’s seniority puts him with the first team right now, but the two share equal reps during practice, and Hartley figures that even distribution could last into the 2014 season.
“Right now, there is no clear-cut No. 1 or 2,” Hartley said. “Really, if you want to put anything down, I have two No. 1s. It’s a blessing to have two guys who are older, more mature, that know how to work and know how to practice. It makes my job easy.”
Replacing Hoskins won’t be. And every Marshall tight end understands how tough it will be to replicate Hoskins’ production, especially as a scorer. He finished his Herd career with 28 touchdown catches, including 25 in the last two seasons and 15 in 2013. Those career and single-season totals aren’t just the best for a tight end in Marshall history. He also scored the fifth-most touchdowns in a season and third-most in a career among all receivers in Herd lore.
In comparison, Frohnapfel and Johnson have combined for 44 catches for 531 yards and eight touchdowns in their Marshall careers. Frohnapfel enters 2014 with 29 catches for 292 yards and five scores, Johnson with 15 catches for 239 yards and three scores.
Frohnapfel said its likely that one tight end won’t be enough to duplicate what Hoskins brought to the offense.
“I think Devon and I are trying to take the same point of it’s going to have to be both of us,” Frohnapfel said. “Gator was a great player. It’s going to take a lot to replace him. We’re both going to have to step up and play better.”
Both say they’re spending this spring working on their balance between receiving and blocking. Marshall’s offense often splits the tight end out as a receiver, but there also are plenty of times where they put their hands in the dirt. Part of that balance comes in conditioning their bodies to handle both jobs.
Frohnapfel is a lanky 6-foot-6 and 229 pounds. Johnson is a bulkier 6-1 and 254 pounds. Frohnapfel might try to add a couple pounds of muscle to help him closer to the line. Johnson might shed a couple pounds to bump up his speed in the open field. Yet neither wants to go overboard and take away an aspect that makes them effective.
Johnson said another year in the position, and the growing comfort level that comes with it, could help him play faster.
“I’m going to try to cut a little weight so I can do better,” Johnson said, “but it’s all mental. I have to go out there and just play and quit thinking about it too much.”
Hartley said his tight ends will spend much time this spring developing their blocking to complement their receiving. It’s also their opportunity to develop the same chemistry with quarterback Rakeem Cato that Hoskins had. Hoskins was second in receptions among the Herd behind 106-catch star Tommy Shuler.
Hartley feels the potential is there.
“It just takes reps,” Hartley said. “But if you ask Cato right now, if you ask him, in that room, who he trusts, he’ll say Fro and Devon. If you ask him of all the people on offense he trusts, obviously Shuler, he probably goes Fro and Devon. He knows where they’re going to be and they do what they’re supposed to do.”
While the race for No. 1 tight end likely won’t be decided this spring, and there may never be one primary tight end on the Marshall depth chart, Frohnapfel said he and Johnson will practice as if that isn’t the case. That way, he said, the Herd’s offense will know it can count on both in the clutch.
“We’re both competing like we want to be the starter,” Frohnapfel said. “I’m sure there will be games where one of us is going to get more snaps, and I’d like to be the guy that has more, and I’m sure he would, too.
“I know I’m trying to be the main guy, and so is he,” he continued. “But I think with the way our offense works, with our tempo, we’re going to be subbing a lot. That’s going to provide an opportunity for both of us.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.