HUNTINGTON — Showing off his arm Wednesday at Marshall’s third day of preseason camp, Michael Birdsong launched a long pass downfield to the tight end, a pass that looked a little too long.
But the tight end reached up and snagged it out of the air, giving the offense a long gain. With that tight end sporting No. 85, it brought a fleeting memory of Cody Slate, who wore that jersey in the latter stages of his mesmerizing career last decade.
But don’t get too excited about Ryan Yurachek just yet. He’s a long way, not to mention a long climb up the depth chart, from approaching top-dog status. His position coach, Todd Hartley, sees the good, bad and ugly.
Oh, does he see the ugly.
“Typical freshman from the standpoint that it’s day 3, we’ve had three consecutive installs and he doesn’t know which way to turn,” Hartley said. “He is swimming. Installs are getting to him a little bit, but that’s typical of guys who are just getting here.”
Yes, Yurachek is just arriving, all right.
The tight end position has been the most diverse aspect of the Thundering Herd offense since head coach Doc Holliday and offensive coordinator Bill Legg came to Huntington. On one play, the tight end may be lined up traditionally, alongside the tackle; on the next play he may line up as a second slot receiver and the next play could feature him at fullback.
Gator Hoskins provided the prototype the last two seasons, catching a combined 85 passes for 1,195 yards and 25 touchdowns. Hoskins became more physical every season, enough to make it to the Miami Dolphins’ camp.
(Alas, Hoskins has been troubled by hamstring problems and has missed multiple practices.)
The tough part for Herd coaches is evaluating prospects for the position. Deon-Tay McManus was a wide receiver in his prep days at Baltimore’s Dunbar High; Yurachek was a traditional tight end at Carolina Forest High in Myrtle Beach, N.C.
“It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. It’s projection recruiting,” said Hartley, who also serves as MU’s recruiting coordinator. “Meaning you have to project that kid to play tight end here at Marshall. If he plays traditional tight end, can he project well enough to play in the slot?
“Or is he a bigger receiver? Do you project him to get big enough so he can put his hand in the dirt? Or is he more of a fullback/Devon Johnson type — do you project him to be athletic enough to play those other two [roles]? Very rarely do you find that guy that does all three of those, like we do here at Marshall, at the high school level.”
Yurachek will have to battle hard to play this fall, at least on scrimmage snaps. Eric Frohnapfel is the nearly undisputed No. 1 tight end with McManus having worked in the spring and 6-foot-6 junior Joe Woodrum earning a scholarship. McManus shined in the seven-on-seven session portion of Wednesday’s afternoon shift.
A true freshman at No. 4 tight end probably doesn’t lose his redshirt unless he is needed on special teams. In Yurachek’s case, he first has to find some dry land mentally.
Still, he’s a prospect who could help the program sooner than later.
“The thing you do see is he has some natural ability at the line of scrimmage,” Hartley said. “He’ll go in there and stick his face in somebody, hit some quality defensive end, and he’s not scared. And you can’t teach that.”
n One of the big stories of camp is the resurgence of punter Tyler Williams, who has been good for a few 75- to 80-yard rainbow shots (from kicking point) per day.
His 45.2-yard average as a freshman dropped off to 42.2 per game, but he turned that around by season’s end.
“He had a tremendous bowl game, it carried over into the spring and summer,” Holliday said.
n Holliday said he is ending the split-squad workouts a day early, bringing the team together for a single 3:45 p.m. practice today.
It will be the team’s second workout in “shells,” or helmets and shoulder pads. The first such workout came Wednesday, and Holliday was pleased with what he saw.
“I like that they weren’t a whole lot different in shells as they were in shorts. We don’t much practice that much different in shells than we do in full pads.”
n The Herd suffered its first substantial injury of the month in the afternoon shift, as safety Corie Wilson injured his right knee. As he was helped off, he put no weight on that leg.
Tiquan Lang remains on the sidelines. Another noticeable absence from team drills, though he has participated otherwise: defensive end Gary Thompson.
“I think he’s three or four days, maybe a week away,” Holliday said. “He’s getting close. It’s just a little nagging thing that’s getting better every day.”
n The first scuffle of the camp broke out briefly in pass-rush drills, with defensive end Ra’Shawde Myers tangling with freshman offensive lineman A.J. Addison.
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.