By Will Vance
When the New England Patriots drafted former Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson in the second round of this year's draft, they did so to fulfill the role of "X" receiver and add a big-bodied playmaker with soft hands. With Dobson gone, the Thundering Herd will have to come up with someone to take over the position, and no clear front-runner has separated himself so far this summer.
Dobson made 165 catches for 2,398 yards and 24 touchdowns for the Thundering Herd in his career, including 57 catches for 679 yards and three touchdowns in his injury-hampered senior year. He was the team's best highlight maker, responsible for a 97-yard catch-and-run touchdown against West Virginia in 2010, the winning touchdown of the 2011 Beef O' Brady's Bowl and most famously the back-handed grab against East Carolina in 2011 now known as "The Catch."
Going into the team's spring practice, the two main contenders to try to fill Dobson's big shoes were redshirt sophomore Davonte Allen and senior transfer Shawny Kersey.
The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Allen was Dobson's main back-up last year, but also dealt with injuries most of the season. Allen caught 11 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns, including catching four passes for 87 yards and a touchdown against Memphis. Allen missed all of spring practice and most of summer until Thursday, when he returned to practice with a bang by pulling down a jump ball in the back of the end zone over two defenders.
"He hasn't played ball in a while, but he's a tremendous athlete with tremendous skills and it won't take long for him to catch up," coach Doc Holliday said.
Allen's primary competition for the "X" starter is Penn State transfer Shawny Kersey. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Kersey made five catches for 108 yards his junior year at Penn State before sitting out last season. He looked the part during spring practice, but has displayed questionable hands so far in summer practice, particularly on shorter routes. Despite the inconsistency, Kersey has shown big-play ability.
During summer practice, a new contender for the "X" starter has emerged in 6-foot-2, 190-pound true freshman Justin Hunt.
"It's like he's gotten bigger since we recruited him," Holliday said.
Hunt has shown good hands and has caught on quickly in his first year of college football, becoming a favorite target of quarterback Rakeem Cato in practice. Hunt has been running with the first-team offense the second week of fall along with Davonte Allen.
Other receivers are in the mix for playing time outside, like redshirt junior Dameon Garrett, junior Craig Wilkins and true freshman Josh Knight, but thus far in camp it appears that Davonte Allen, Shawny Kersey and Justin Hunt will be the ones vying to do their best Dobson impression once the season begins.