HUNTINGTON — A 66-reception season would put you in a pretty high position on the college football stat charts in any given year.
Even when averaged over a 14-game season, you would end up in the FBS top 100 with about 20 places to spare. The 4.71 receptions per game would have put you seventh in the Conference USA table in 2013.
The 66 number does not represent the number of receptions by Marshall’s Tommy Shuler last year. Rather, it tells how many of his catches resulted in a first down.
Yes, it’s true. Of the 106 receptions Shuler pulled down during the 2013 season, 66 resulted in a first down. In 2012, Shuler accounted for 64 first downs in his 110 catches over 12 games.
Receivers tend to be counted on to move the stakes, particularly those who are sent longer distances than Shuler, that classic “just get open” slot receiver. But how many earn 130 first downs in two seasons?
Let’s put this into perspective. The 2013 Herd earned 364 first downs, and Shuler accounted for 17.6 percent of those. The Herd passed for 189 of those first downs, so Shuler accounted for 34.9 percent of those. Remember, the Herd boasted red-zone specialist Gator Hoskins, 6-foot-6 Eric Frohnapfel, a full stable of running backs and other weapons.
And when the Herd faces a third down, particularly the 4-to-7-yard range, Shuler is at his best. He has caught 40 third-down passes for first downs, and has preserved possession on four fourth-down plays.
Those numbers underline Shuler’s role with the Thundering Herd. Much has been made about his chemistry with boyhood friend and quarterback Rakeem Cato, but Shuler’s numbers speak to his dependability. After all, if Shuler can’t catch the ball, Cato has to find somebody else.
Barring a freakish injury — he almost never takes a direct hit — Shuler is projected to become the program’s all-time leader in receptions. His career number of 230 is 76 behind Josh Davis, who baffled opposing secondaries from 2001-04.
There are some contrasts between the two. Davis averaged 12.7 yards per catch to Shuler’s current 10.5, speaking to the taller Davis’ ability to gain extra yards after the catch, and to run deeper pass patterns.
Those are two areas in which Shuler has emphasized. He has shown hints of a payoff this month in camp, outdueling Corey Tindal for a deep ball in Friday morning’s workout.
“I had to trim some weight in the offseason,” Shuler said. “So that’s probably going to get me under my feet and get me going. I feel like I needed to add that to my game. Everybody was stopping at 10 [yards], thinking I was going to run a route [no deeper] and just get in a hole.
“So I feel like I’ve got to run past them, give me another option to my game.”
While Davis may have had more pure athletic ability, Shuler has been more dependable. Thundering Herd fans of a decade ago may remember that Davis developed problems with drops as a senior, limiting his touchdowns to seven and holding his yardage under 1,000.
Cato doesn’t see anything like that happening with Shuler.
“He’s always been a ‘man’ type,” he said. “Just going about his business his own way, just being his own person, doing all the right things to get to the next step, to get to the next level, whatever his goals may be.”
Shuler said: “You can’t ever go out there and think you’re bigger than the game. You’re never bigger than the game; the game’s always bigger than you. It’s not going anywhere; you may go somewhere, but the game’s not going anywhere.
“That’s the mindset you’ve got to have. You’ve got to play the game and play it well.”
And keep moving the stakes.
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow @DougSmock on Twitter.