HUNTINGTON — The Marshall football team knew it would be difficult replacing two outside receivers the caliber of Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson. The deeper into the 2013 season the Thundering Herd got, the more it realized how difficult it actually would be.
While slot receiver Tommy Shuler and tight end Gator Hoskins emerged as those among the most prolific at their respective positions, Marshall’s fleet of outside receivers struggled with inconsistency. This spring session is a step in re-establishing that group as a more prominent part of the offense.
Marshall coach Doc Holliday said the coaching staff has delivered that message to those receivers.
“I think they’ve been challenged,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said, “and I think they need to be.”
In both 2012 and 2013, Shuler established himself as Marshall’s focus in total receptions. Hoskins emerged as the Herd’s top scoring threat. Yet in 2012, Dobson and Wilson played a greater role in Marshall’s passing game. Two seasons ago, the senior duo combined to catch 126 passes for 1,420 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The duo’s departure left a production void among the Herd’s outside wideouts. The top two in 2013 at those spots were Devon Smith and Craig Wilkins. They combined for just 71 catches for 1,061 yards and six scores. Their 71 total receptions barely edged out Wilson’s 69 in 2012. Plus, Wilson and Dobson got their numbers in fewer games. They combined to play 22 games in 2012, Wilson in 12 and Dobson in 10. Smith and Wilkins combined for 27 games in 2013, Smith playing 14 and Wilkins playing 13.
Wilson and Dobson combined for 31 percent of Cato’s completions in 2012. Wilkins and Smith combined for 23.8 percent of Cato’s total completions in 2013. Receivers coach Mike Furrey said he wants those numbers to again trend up.
“The biggest thing we’re doing offensively, as far as the outside receivers are concerned, is getting them more involved in our offense,” he said. “Look at our offense, and the inside is fine. The run game is fine. But getting those guys … not just throwing the deep balls, but getting those guys involved in every way so that we can loosen up if they want to try to bracket Tommy, a lot of that just depends on the performance of the outside guys.”
Furrey said this spring is about accountability and consistency for his outside receivers. The team, and especially Cato, must figure out which of them can perform as necessary. Then they must discern which they can depend on regularly.
Smith, the 5-foot-7 former high school sprint champion, has graduated. Wilkins, who had 14 of his 32 receptions in the final five games of 2013, came on strong at the end of the season. While that could give him an inside track to remain a starter — he started 11 of the 13 games he played in 2013 — he’s not resting on his laurels.
“It’s coming along,” Wilkins said. “Every day, I come in and learn and try to get better. That’s the biggest goal right now, trying to understand the game.”
Davonte Allen, a 6-2, 200-pound redshirt junior, has the physical tools for the position. They haven’t yet translated to big numbers on the field. In 2012, when he sat behind Dobson and Wilson, he caught 12 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns in nine games with no starts. In 2013, when those two were gone, he caught just nine passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games with four starts.
Holliday said that part of the reason for Allen’s slow progress could be the injuries he’s worked through in past years that kept him less than 100 percent. That isn’t a problem this spring.
“This is the first spring that Davonte has really had and the first winter workout he was able to get through,” Holliday said. “He was healthy through the winter and it carried over to the spring. That’s good to see.”
Allen said he’s taking advantage of his healthy spring by immersing himself in the finer points of playing receiver. Those are some of the things Furrey said he’s working on with all the outside receivers, ways to beat corners one-on-one other than simply out-sprinting them. One of those things, Allen said, is patience. That’s a weird word to connect with such a speed-based position, but Allen said it’s crucial.
“Once you have patience at the line, there’s not too much running you have to do,” Allen said. “You just stack the DB and win. At wideout, anybody can run against somebody. You can just take off and run. At wideout, it’s all about patience, getting the leverage on the DB and beating them at the line.”
Holliday also has seen promising things out of Angelo Jean-Louis, who sat out last season as an academic non-qualifier, but started practicing with the team during Military Bowl preparation in December.
With Hoskins now graduated and working toward a potential NFL career, the need for Marshall’s outside receivers to regain their larger roles in the offense is paramount. Someone in the passing game must take the pressure off Shuler, and Furrey said what he’s seen so far of his outside receivers has been promising.
“I’m really excited right now about our guys,” Furrey said. “They’ve come out and guys are learning really what it just takes to play that position. You’ve got to come to work every single day. You’re going against the best players on defense, because corners are supposed to cover.
“They’re learning and they’re getting better,” he added, “and hopefully, by the end of the spring, we’ll have two or three guys we know these are the guys we can start the season with.”
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.