Holcombe slides into Herd’s backup QB job

Photo courtesy Marshall University Gunnar Holcombe has won the job as the Herd's backup quarterback behind Rakeem Cato.

HUNTINGTON — As the newly crowned backup quarterback, Gunnar Holcombe has that “one heartbeat from the presidency” role at Marshall.

That analogy may be over-dramatic, but consider this: If Rakeem Cato does so much as get a little blood on his uniform, Holcombe may be summoned to take over for the next play.

And he would do so no matter the down and distance. If it’s third-and-11, he’d likely be assigned to make a first down.

“As crazy as you say that, that kind of happened the other day in practice,” said Bill Legg, offensive coordinator and QB coach. “Cato kind of hit his funny bone, so he was kind of wiggling his arm and said, ‘Coach, I need a minute.’

“We threw Gunnar in for two snaps, and he handled what I needed him to handle, the way I needed him to handle it. And then Cato went back in and we went from there.”

That kind of performance, that kind of poise is what the Thundering Herd needs at the No. 2 spot, especially after Blake Frohnapfel transferred to Massachusetts.

In his two seasons as a No. 2, Frohnapfel was called up a few times. The most notable came at East Carolina in the 2012 season finale, when he ran for a 51-yard touchdown and engineered a 15-play, 75-yard drive that gave the Herd a late 52-45 lead.

About the time Holcombe learned Monday he MU’s No. 2 ahead of Cole Garvin, Frohnapfel was named the starting quarterback for the Minutemen. The two remain in close contact.

“He would coach me up on it,” Holcombe said of Frohnapfel’s role in his development. “The speed was so fast I couldn’t understand it. I see what he means now — just be calm and relax.”

In Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage, Holcombe went 11 of 22 for 151 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. He mostly worked with the second unit, but he was bumped up to the first team late in the evening.

Legg saw many encouraging signs.

“We’ve always know Gunnar had talent,” Legg said. “We could see it every single day when we’re out here doing drill work, throwing routes on air and one-on-ones and that kind of stuff. We always knew he was smart.

“But there’s a difference between being smart and being decisive, and the thing that he needed to do was become more decisive so the level of consistency in his play showed up. You saw it in spurts in the spring. You saw it in spurts in the first week. But last week he started honing in and saying, ‘OK. This is my guy, I’ve got to lock in on this guy and that guy’s going to tell me whether I should go outside or inside, high or low.

“He’s much more consistent. Saturday is where it showed the most, where we had a real game-type scenario where there was no coaches on the field. He got his eyes where they belong, he didn’t start trying to over-think things, which has been his big nemesis.”

MU coach Doc Holliday added: “One thing about Gunnar that Cole [Garvin] doesn’t have is Gunnar’s been here for a couple springs, and he’s got a lot more under his belt as far as investments are concerned.”

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Former Maryland linebacker Shawn Petty officially joined the Thundering Herd in the afternoon practice Tuesday. The 6-foot, 235-pound junior will sit out the season as a transfer.

Petty had 24 tackles, four for loss and two sacks last year, but had no stats in the Terrapins’ 31-20 loss to Marshall at the Military Bowl. He was probably known best for having to play quarterback as a true freshman in 2012 after four signal-callers suffered season-ending injuries.

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The Marshall family grew Tuesday morning, as tight ends coach Todd Hartley and wife Jessica welcomed Teagan Elizabeth. The Hartleys’ third child came into the world at 10:15 a.m. at 5 pounds, 13 ounces, 19 inches long and “rippin’ and roarin’, kissing a-- and taking names.”

The couple already had a 3-year-old son, Tucker, and 18-month-old daughter Tenley, the former born in Georgia and the latter born here. Todd Hartley missed all of one practice Tuesday, but he’s ready for another round of sleep-deprived fatherhood.

As a coach, he’s used to it.

“About 4 a.m., wake up and get the other little ones up, fed them and they wanted to go in when the baby was born,” he said after the afternoon practice. “She delivered at about 10:15, I stayed there until about 12:30, took the little ones home and came here for the [pre-practice] meeting at about 2 o’clock. So it’s about 6:15, 6:30 and I’ll be heading back to the hospital.”

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Assisting the evening practice was Conference USA official Kenny Long, serving as a back judge. Long is a Marshall graduate from Hurricane, so he is not assigned to games involving the Herd.

“He was watching the hands in the secondary, making sure we were playing clean back there,” Holliday said. “We did some punt return drills, where he could check out some blocks and things like that.”

Reach Doug Smock at dougsmock@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

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