IT’S DIFFICULT to pick a starting point in talking about Marshall’s influx of young receivers, so let’s just start with the morning split-squad practice.
What the heck?
The first two days of college football practices have the appearance of sandlot ball, thanks to the lack of any pads below the neck. You can’t tell much about the men in the trenches, but you can pick up a thing or two from the skill positions.
Maybe two from the morning: Hyleck Foster and Donquell “Gator” Green. After two days, it’s tough to worry at the Thundering Herd’s future at the slot receiver position, post-Tommy Shuler.
Barring injury, neither Foster nor Green will steal from Shuler’s expected 100 catches from Rakeem Cato. But in running routes and catching passes from Cole Garvin and Michael Birdsong, they have looked quite slick.
Position coach Mike Furrey has another definition.
“They’re natural. That’s what they are,” said Furrey, in his second year at MU. “They’re both very good with the ball in their hands. They both were outstanding high school players. They both played running back, so you know they’re tough.
“Really, it’s just a matter of them getting used to running routes and being disciplined, being on timing with our quarterbacks, all those kind of intangibles — going to work every day, getting over that ‘senioritis’ from high school. They’re doing everything we’re asking them to do right now.”
They may not be asked to redshirt. How does this grab you: Foster as a No. 2 slot behind Shuler and Green returning punts? Green might be ready for that job right now. This minute, as you’re reading this.
The Waynesboro, Ga., native is listed at 5-foot-8, which Furrey calls “a great [game] program stat.” (That’s a polite way of saying, “Yeah, surrre he’s 5-8.”) He has quickly evoked memories of Devon “Moo Moo” Smith, whose blinding speed flipped field position in critical moments last year.
“I think he’s a better athlete than what Devon was,” said Herd coach Doc Holliday. “Devon was faster, probably, in straightaway speed. I don’t want to take anything away from Devon, he did a great job for us, but this guy’s a little more athletic, probably a little bit better in space. He’s a little bit more natural than what Devon was.”
Foster and Smith, and others mentioned below, will get their coaching from Furrey, who spent most of his eight NFL seasons as a receiver. They’ll get on-field leadership from Shuler, for certain.
“I don’t think he has to do anything [besides] what he’s doing to really teach these guys,” Furrey said. “They’re getting a chance to come in and watch possibly one of the greatest receivers, from a statistics standpoint, how to play college football, in his senior year.
“When they come in, they already know what he’s done. They’re already coming out in the second [afternoon] practice and watch him run routes. And they should. When you watch Tommy and see how consistent Tommy is on route running and working hard, because he wants to get to the next level.”
Shuler isn’t resting on two 100-catch seasons and his natural chemistry with Cato. He showed as much Tuesday afternoon, getting behind the defense for a long touchdown catch from Cole Garvin.
The young head-turner in the afternoon session Tuesday came from the outside, from Emanuel Beal. The Powder Springs, Ga., native was phenomenal on two particular passes on this day, going across the middle and yanking balls from midair while facing certain contact. Even in a padless practice, a safety couldn’t avoid a receiver running that route.
As it turns out, Beal is physically ahead of a lot of receivers, true freshmen and older. It’s very tough to see him redshirt, and he could excel from either outside spot.
“Six-2, 6-3, 210 and can run,” Furrey said. “And he’s strong — I think he bench-pressed 225 16 times when he got here at the end of summer.”
Benching 225 16 times? As an 18-, 19-year-old receiver? That’s not something you always see.
And then there are junior Davonte Allen and true freshman Angelo Jean-Louis out there in “X” land. Throw in Demetrius Evans, the fifth-year senior who never quite goes away.
Allen, the 6-2, 200-pounder from Belle Glade, Fla., is the focal point. Even without that dropped pass that ended the third overtime at Virginia Tech last year, he would have accumulated his doubters, probably more than anybody on the team.
That doubt eventually included his coaches, which were forced to put the undersized “Moo Moo” outside. Smith couldn’t win any jump balls at his (lack of) height, but his speed and sure hands gave MU its best combination with Shuler and tight end Gator Hoskins. It had to be done.
If Allen can’t answer the bell this year, there won’t be such a hard decision. The only dilemma will be who takes his snaps and gets the ball from Cato.
“You’re talking about a guy who, ever since he was in high school, was told he has every tool you’d want to be a prototypical wide receiver,” Furrey said. “Davonte needs to come out here every single game and attack the game like he’s ‘the man.’ Kind of like a Tommy Shuler.
“Davonte needs to turn that green light on every single day and come out here and learn and learn and learn, come out here hungry, and to be the real big-time, physical wide receiver that we need to go to, and we can go to when we want. And I think it’s really just his choice, him getting rid of all that stuff everybody’s been telling him he could be, and becoming it because he wants to be.
“Otherwise, we’ve got what other guys who can do what they need to do to get us through games. But we want more than that.”
I’m feeling the Herd will get more than that, one way or another. A group of hungry freshmen will see to that.
“That’s probably the best receiver play I’ve seen since I’ve been here, to be honest,” said Holliday, the fifth-year coach.
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.