HUNTINGTON — With nine spring practices and a full fall camp ahead, it’s too early to crown the all-important backup quarterback at Marshall.
But a pecking order was established in Saturday’s limited scrimmage, and Gunnar Holcombe was the lead gunner. Or No. 2, if you wish, behind Rakeem Cato.
Holcombe took 20 of the 52 snaps in the full-team portion of the workout, held under sunny skies at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. He was also the second thrower used during seven-on-seven drills.
Just as notable was first-semester freshman Cole Garvin used as the third QB, ahead of redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson. But again, the Thundering Herd’s season opener is 146 days away.
“You’d like to see one of those three guys separate themselves, and it hasn’t happened yet. You’d like to see it happen prior to the end of spring ball; it may or may not,” said MU coach Doc Holliday. “Gunnar has been more consistent throwing the football, I think he’s making better decisions, he’s got a better understanding of what we’re doing offensively, which puts him in that position right now.
“But Cole Garvin is a talented young guy, I see some good things out of him, too. The thing we’ve got to do is put those two guys, as we go along, in more scrimmage situations, let them run the team without [defensive coordinator Bill] Legg and the rest of us.”
Holcombe wasn’t given the green light to wing it downfield a la Cato, but he did complete 8 of 11 passes for 47 yards. He was victim of one drop, threw one bad pass and was “sacked” once, but did evade a pass rush for a completion.
Cato went 10 of 14 for 116 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to Devon Johnson. In two attempts, Garvin completed a 20-yard pass to Deandre Reaves, who made a good adjustment to his back shoulder. Anderson’s two throws fell incomplete.
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There was one notable development on the defensive side: Michael Johnson received his first full look at first-team nickel back.
The Herd has options there, to be sure. Corey Tindal is playing a traditional cornerback spot this spring, generally opposite Darryl Roberts, but could come inside. D.J. Hunter has been moved from strong safety to strong-side linebacker, but he can slip to nickel without a substitution.
But Michael Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 163-pounder who played special teams as a true freshman last year, could play his way in. He turned in some big plays Saturday, and was on the wrong end of a few.
The best and worst (or hardest-luck) came in seven-on-seven drills. He intercepted one of Cato’s tosses to a nickel back’s worst nightmare, Tommy Shuler.
“That kind of got under [Cato’s] skin a little bit,” Johnson said. “When they first snapped the ball, my read options are [based on] the quarterback. So I saw him look toward Tommy Shuler’s way. … I leaned over there and the ball just came to me.”
That made up for his getting “posterized” on an Eric Frohnapfel 30-yard catch. Johnson shared the infamy, as the 6-foot-6 tight end caught a perfect Cato lob between him and safety Tiquan Lang.
“That was a great catch by Frohnapfel. Sometimes they just slip away from you,” Johnson said.
All in all, Herd coaches saw some promise and Johnson gets a full dose of video learning.
“That’s a whole new position [for him], first time’s we’ve scrimmaged,” said defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. “Sometimes it moves kind of fast on you. We’re seeing if we’ve got anything going there. Corey can play there, but we still need another corner to kind of come along.
“He’s been a guy who’s been real good in terms of how he’s worked, works hard on the field. He’s worked hard to improve himself, so we felt like we’d take a look at it, see how it works.”
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BRIEFLY: The unofficiated scrimmage was remarkably penalty-free with one exception, Lang’s blatant hold on a pass to Devon Johnson. Taj Letman intercepted the Cato pass, but the defensive players didn’t celebrate much. They knew. … Armonze Daniel, the junior defensive end who may be making his last bid for the two-deep, had the tag “sack” on Holcombe. There was one other sack, a complete pocket collapse on Cato … The most physical catch-and-run of the day? Not by Devon Johnson, as one might guess, but by Angelo Jean-Louis. The freshman receiver bowled over safety Corie Wilson to complete a 14-yard pass on second-and-11. … Saturday’s workout was the Herd’s sixth of 15, with more scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday this week. The weekday practices begin at 3:30 p.m.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.