Marshall football: Backup QB race not settled yet

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato watches a play with former Thundering Herd and NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich during the team’s annual Green-White spring game Saturday in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — Marshall football coach Doc Holliday didn’t see any one backup quarterback put himself head and shoulders above the rest in the race for No. 2 this spring.

“It probably hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot, which probably isn’t a good thing, to be honest,” he said. “You’d have liked to have seen one of those guys separate, and they didn’t.”

Yet that doesn’t mean the quarterbacks behind starter Rakeem Cato didn’t improve during their race to become Cato’s new understudy. Through the five weeks of practice, Holliday saw his younger signal-callers show flashes of promise that will help them entering the fall.

“I do think they showed they had the ability to play,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting more reps and making better decisions at times.”

Marshall’s need to evaluate its young quarterbacks grew exponentially after former backup Blake Frohnapfel announced in January that he would transfer in hopes of more playing time. He ultimately chose the University of Massachusetts as his next destintation.

Three quarterbacks behind Cato remained on the roster, but none of them had played a second of a regular-season college football game. Rising redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holcombe had sat behind Cato and Frohnapfel, while rising redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson worked the scout team during his redshirt year. Cole Garvin enrolled at Marshall in January.

For Saturday’s Green-White spring game, Holcombe and Garvin got the longest looks under center. After Cato, the reigning Conference USA offensive player of the year, shed his shoulder pads after a 3-for-11, 102-yard passing performance, Holcombe and Garvin went head to head. Both were relatively accurate — Holcombe completed 11 of 18 passes while Garvin completed 10 of 17 — but Holcombe got a bit more out of his throws.

He finished with 220 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, including a couple of long bombs to receiver Justin Hunt. Garvin, on the other hand, ended with 109 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Anderson missed on all four of his attempts and threw a pick. Both Garvin and Holcombe felt they had their shining moments Saturday. Holcombe said he just wanted to improve on his consistency.

Offensive coordinator Bill Legg said that was a trait he was looking for out of all his young signal-callers.

“The biggest thing we’re looking for out of them is consistency,” Legg said. “At the end of the day, the physical ability is there. It’s not a matter of physical ability. It’s not a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of handling all that information in instantaneous fashion, and doing it over and over and over again.”

Garvin was just getting used to the college game after enrolling early at Marshall.

“I think it got better, a litle bit, and then I think it kind of evened out to the end,” Garvin said. “Overall, it’s a lot better than what I’ve been doing in practice, and I think this whole spring has been been my indoctrination. And hopefully, when I come back this summer, I’ll be ready to go.”

The backups got the added benefit Saturday of playing versus a live defense. They had spent the previous 14 spring practices in red non-contact jerseys. Cato continued to wear his, but the other three spent the spring game eluding defenders trying to legitimately bring them to the turf.

“At some point, you’ve got to do that, whether you do it in the fall or you do it in the spring,” Holliday said. “We decided to do it in the spring. I thought it was good to see those guys get hit a little bit.”

Holcombe liked it, too. It was a chance for him and the other backups to get a true idea of how they’d fare against a pass rush.

“When you’re in a red jersey, you’re not in a live game situation,” Holcombe said. “It could be a sack, and you could throw a touchdown. And they all just see a touchdown, but they don’t see it was a sack.

“Then you go back and look at film, and you’re like, dang, I need to step up in the pocket. I need to roll out. I need to throw the ball away. I think being live was good for all of us, because I haven’t been hit since high school.”

Marshall’s backup quarterbacks earned praise Saturday from one person who’d know the most — their senior teammate, Cato. He’s counseled them throughout the spring, offering tips and telling them the things he sees that they may not. Cato said their dedication off the practice field has helped all of them over the past month.

“One thing about those guys, is nobody sees the effort they put in behind closed doors,” Cato said. “Those guys sit all the time watching film, willing to get better, staying after meetings, 30 or 40 minutes after meetings, just to meet with Coach Legg. Those guys come out here with 100 percent effort.”

The race for the No. 2 quarterback job will continue following the conclusion of spring practice, and Legg wasn’t backing off his prediction that it could last until the middle of August.

“They’ve got the summer and about the first two weeks of camp to put themselves in the position of being at least the lead candidate for the next guy,” he said.

And Holcombe said all three backup quarterbacks understand how important that No. 2 man has been in Marshall history.

“Byron (Leftwich) was talking to us the other day, and he said that when he broke his ankle, he knew he could trust (Stan Hill),” Holcombe said. “He beat Ben Roethlisberger at Miami of Ohio. I want to be the guy that my team feels, if something bad happens — and hopefully nothing does — if it does, they can trust me to come in and do as well as he did.”

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

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