Marshall's Cato builds on 2012 success
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The 2012 season was rewarding yet humbling for Rakeem Cato: He was named Conference USA's most valuable player on a team that went 5-7.
Or maybe the sophomore quarterback was named the MVP in spite of his team's 5-7 finish. Or despite his season ending before Dec. 1. Or despite ... oh, fill in the blank.
Cato threw for 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns a year ago, numbers ranking him among the very best quarterbacks in Thundering Herd history. But it isn't hard figuring out how he can outdo himself in his junior year.
As one eccentric National Football League owner said a few times: Just win, baby.
Cato's numbers won't matter as much as his continued improvement. Will he rise from merely being the best quarterback in C-USA to flat-out dominating the league and climbing onto a national platform, as a few previous Herd passers have done?
This much is certain: He has the ultimate confidence of his coaches - first and foremost, Bill Legg. The Poca native is serving as coach Doc Holliday's offensive coordinator for the fourth year, and has taken over the quarterbacks as his position of emphasis.
It's not like he has to build or rebuild Cato from the ground up, either. Legg has seen the Miami native grow up mentally, emotionally and physically from that wide-eyed 160-pound teenager of two years ago.
Cato has become an extension of Legg, which is what any coach wants out of his marquee quarterback.
"Smarter, more decisive, understands how I think," Legg began his assessment. "I understand how he thinks. There are times he'll check to something that I'm sitting there going, 'That's exactly what I wanted him to do.'
"And there are times he turns, and he's about to give the signal to the [coaches] box as to what [he wants], and I've already called it."
Cato and Legg showed a lot of that synchronization last year as the Herd averaged 534.6 total yards per game, the nation's sixth highest mark.
The next step? The physical improvement, and Cato is showing that this month. Having bulked up from that scrawny 160 to 190-ish over two summers, he is throwing a much stronger ball - so much so, he has had to re-calibrate his touch passes.
Legg is not worried in the least.
"He has worked hard on his individual game from the standpoint of improving his strength," Legg said. "He has improved his quickness and his speed, and his arm is stronger, longer. You know what I'm saying?
"He's making throws now at the end of practice on whatever day of doubles, that a year ago, his arm, he might not have been able to make that throw. And so you start putting all that stuff together, and now he's taking on the mantra of teacher-slash-mentor, and leader, and you throw all those things on top of it, and the kid's got a chance to be - he's already pretty special, but he's got a chance to be really special."
Sean Cronin isn't new to Marshall, having tutored the defensive line for Holliday in the 2010 season. After spending 2011 and 2012 at Temple, he is coaching defensive ends under Holliday and his father-in-law, new coordinator Chuck Heater.
Cronin didn't have to be introduced to the older players, for certain. He knew the story of senior Jeremiah Taylor, the team's 25-year-old elder statesman who literally walked in from the street and rose to his starting position.
Cronin knew of Alex Bazzie in 2010, but that was about it. Nobody then really knew that Bazzie would get ripped in the weight room and rip his way up the depth chart at defensive end - certainly not Cronin.
"Bazzie was the one that really surprised me," Cronin said. "He was a backup linebacker [in 2010], hadn't really played. Under Coach [J.C.] Price, he's really developed into a fine D-lineman. He's a high-motor guy and he goes really hard - when you watch the [NFL] draft every year, usually about a third of the first round is defensive linemen.
"And one thing they say about those guys is 'They're high-motor guys.' That's what Bazzie is. He isn't as big as some of those guys, but he's a high-motor guy; he doesn't quit.
"I was very impressed and surprised when I came back to see what a player he's become under Coach Price."
Price is still on the staff, now specializing in tutoring the defensive tackles.
MU will conduct its final scrimmage today before beginning its first game-week preparation for the Aug. 31 opener against Miami (Ohio). The scrimmage is closed.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
The five best games of Rakeem Cato's Marshall career, as ranked by NCAA passer efficiency rating:
Opponent, date Comp Att Yards TD Int Rating Result
East Carolina, Nov. 26, 2011 23 29 341 2 0 200.84 W, 34-27 (OT)
At East Carolina, Nov. 23, 2012 31 40 318 5 1 180.53 L, 59-65 (2 OT)
Western Carolina, Sept. 8, 2012 32 42 377 3 0 175.16 W, 52-24
Memphis, Nov. 3, 2012 34 44 341 4 0 173.37 W, 38-28
Tulsa, Nov. 6, 2012 31 44 391 3 1 163.05 L, 38-45