HUNTINGTON — For one day, Rakeem Cato didn’t throw a football Tommy Shuler’s way. The reason? He didn’t have a choice.
Family obligations kept Shuler, the Marshall football team’s all-Conference USA receiver off the field for last Saturday’s scrimmage. And that kept Cato, the Thundering Herd’s all-conference quarterback, from zeroing in on his best friend’s No. 1 jersey.
It also kept Cato from falling back into old habits and starting new ones, namely looking for receivers not named Tommy Shuler.
“I’m making that personal,” Cato said after that scrimmage. “I need to get those guys the ball. A lot of teams this year are going to bracket us.”
A lot of them tried last year against Shuler and tight end Gator Hoskins. It didn’t work. Shuler finished with his second-straight 100-catch season. Hoskins led all Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends with 15 touchdowns. But Hoskins has graduated and is preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, leaving Cato down half of his primary targets.
Here’s how much Marshall quarterbacks depended on the tag team of Shuler and Hoskins last season: The Herd completed 315 passes in 2013. Of those, 156 went either to Shuler or Hoskins. They also accounted for 25 of Marshall’s 42 touchdown catches.
That’s nearly 50 percent of all receptions and nearly 60 percent of touchdown catches going to two players. And one of them no longer populates the roster. The next-closest returning receiver to Shuler’s 106 catches in 2013 is Craig Wilkins with 32. Compare that to 2012, where Shuler caught a team-record 110 passes, but Antavious Wilson also caught 69 and Aaron Dobson caught 57 in just 10 games. Hoskins only caught 35 passes, but 10 were for touchdowns.
Marshall quarterbacks spread the wealth last season, but some folks got a whole lot more than others. Seventeen players caught at least one pass. Only four caught more than 20. Only seven caught more than 10. In 2012, five receivers caught at least 32 passes and 11 caught at least 11.
Shuler returned to the field — and to Cato’s list of options — with Marshall’s next practice. Yet with no complementary pieces around him, Shuler is in danger of being a very popular man with a group of people he’d love to avoid — opposing secondaries. Cato could use at least one Robin to Shuler’s Batman, a guy who could help take the heat — or at least one defensive back — off his top target. So Cato has spent this spring holding auditions.
The message — if you’re a Marshall receiver not named Tommy Shuler, expect some footballs to come your way.
“I told those guys I’m not going to skip my read,” Cato said. “I’m not going to try to run the ball to make the play. I’m going to throw the ball. We either make the play or it’s a bad play for us. As long as we keep making plays, that’s just going to build confidence for us.
“I told them, as long as you’re one-on-one, the ball’s getting thrown your way,” he added.
They’ve taken that relationship-building off the field, too, fifth-year senior Demetrius Evans said. In the past, quarterbacks and receivers met separately. That’s no longer the case.
“Now we’re all meeting at the same time,” he said. “We took that from the meeting room and put it on the field, and these are the results.”
Last Saturday, Davonte Allen, who caught nine passes for 163 yards all last season, caught five for 122 yards. Evans, who caught 19 passes for 134 yards in 2013, caught four passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. Shuler’s understudy, Deandre Reaves, who caught six passes for 42 yards last season, caught five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown on Saturday.
“I love my receivers over any DB we’re playing against,” Cato said. “I’m going to take that match-up any time.”
This spring, he’s showing them the love, in hopes that when the regular season rolls around, defenses won’t fall in love with blanketing one wideout — and receivers not named Tommy Shuler will make their own names on the field.