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Marshall football: Backup QB race could last a while

HUNTINGTON — Anyone expecting a quick decision on the Marshall football team’s next backup quarterback — including the three young players in the race for that position — might as well settle in for a longer haul.

“Ultimately, a decision won’t be made until, probably, two weeks into camp as to where we’re at,” said Thundering Herd offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Bill Legg.

For redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holcombe, redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson and freshman Cole Garvin, that likely means they’ll be waiting a few more months to learn where they each fit in Marshall’s quarterbacking hierarchy behind starter Rakeem Cato. That also means they’ll have plenty of time to prove why they deserve the Herd’s No. 2 spot behind the Conference USA’s 2012 MVP and 2013 offensive player of the year.

Holcombe said that’s led to a spirited, yet healthy competition.

“We’re all competing and going hard,” Holcombe said. “No one’s really slacking or anything. Everyone is just competing and trying to be the best they can be. They push the person in front of them and push the person next to them. In our position, I guess, it’s push the person next to them.”

The No. 2 role behind Cato opened in January when Blake Frohnapfel, Cato’s backup the previous two seasons, announced he would transfer after graduating in May. He’ll use his final two years of eligibility to fight for the starting job at the University of Massachusetts.

Now Holcombe, Anderson and Garvin vie for Frohnapfel’s vacated job. The three have varying levels of experience within Marshall’s offensive system, but the same amount of experience in terms of actual game snaps — zero. Holcombe spent his redshirt freshman year behind both Cato and Frohnapfel. Anderson spent his redshirt year on the scout team, emulating the opposing quarterback of the week. Garvin enrolled at Marshall in January.

The Herd coaches are making sure this spring that all three are getting plenty of opportunities under center, to both give each quarterback experience he didn’t get in the past and figure out which signal-caller is breaking away from the pack.

“(Cato is) getting one-third (of the snaps) right now, so take advantage of the reps that you’re getting,” Legg said. “Make an impression. In fall camp, he’ll take one third just to save his arm and his legs. Once we get into the season, he’s taking two-thirds, because he’s the guy who has to make sure he’s ready to play. The other guys are getting one-third. He’s got to get it down to the point where it’s second nature.”

The quarterbacks say they’re getting there, though Anderson said he’ll spend much of the spring knocking off the rust. His scout-team tenure kept him mirroring running quarterbacks like Florida Atlantic’s Jaquez Johnson and the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Eric Soza. Now he’ll have to get back to throwing the ball, as well as getting used to the myriad post-snap reads he has to make in Marshall’s offense.

“Our offense is very complex,” Anderson said. “Maybe how the plays sound is not as complex, with the verbiage. But with all the stuff that we, as quarterbacks, have to do, it’s a lot. So it’s really just being consistent in all my reads and completing the plays through the reads.”

The contenders for backup are getting plenty of snaps this spring, thought they don’t always know what unit with which they’ll get them. That’s the plan, Legg said. There will be periods where he’ll send the second-team offense out on the field, but with Garvin rather than Holcombe or Anderson, or the third team with Holcombe rather than Anderson or Garvin.

It’s Legg’s way of simulating the sudden change that they could face on game day. Frohnapfel faced that in 2012, when he had to lead Marshall’s offense after Cato hurt his leg late in the season finale versus East Carolina.

“If you get called off the bench like a relief pitcher, you don’t get seven warmup pitches when you get to the mound,” Legg said. “You’ve got to be ready. That call doesn’t come down to the box. You have to be ready to go.”

The quarterbacks don’t mind those surprise announcements at all, Holcombe said.

“It’s a thrill,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s like in a game. You could be on the sideline and, all of a sudden, Cato goes down and you’re on fourth and 10 with 10 seconds left and you’re on the 12-yard line and you have to score. You get put in with the ones, you either do something or you’re not going to get another chance.”

With Legg saying the backup quarterback race won’t end anytime soon, the three contenders will have plenty of time to make their cases. They’ll get even more time than usual in the spring game, as the game will split into two teams, rather than an offense vs. defense match-up. A couple of former Marshall greats, quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, will be coaches. Team Pennington will have Cato and Garvin on its sideline, while Team Leftwich gets Holcombe and Anderson.

Holcombe said none of the contenders mind the competition.

“It’s only going to make you better,” Holcombe said. “It’s either going to make you better or you’re going to ride off in the sunset.”

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at or 304-348-1712. His blog is at Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.

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