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Shuler, Cato among MU's south Florida natives

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It's almost as routine as eating and sleeping, it seems: Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato finds receiver Tommy Shuler, a boyhood friend and high school teammate.

They have hooked up for almost all of Shuler's 198 career receptions, which included a school-record 110 last season.

But Cato spreads the wealth over the course of a season, and has found "Z" receiver Craig Wilkins 24 times. And safety A.J. Leggett has tangled with both Shuler and Wilkins in practice. Ditto defensive back Keith Baxter, who is sitting out with an injury this year.

As Marshall prepares for its first Conference USA game against Florida International, consider this: All those Miami-Dade County natives could have been playing for the host Panthers at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Would that have flipped the balance of power in the reconstituted East Division? Or at least kept FIU respectable? Or saved coach Mario Cristobal from one of college football's strangest firings after last year?

No one will ever know, but the college football world came close to finding out. Cato had declared his FIU commitment as "solid" long into the recruiting process.

"Real close. I was committed there my whole senior year," Cato said Monday. "I committed before my senior year even started. I just stuck with it at the end, Tommy and coach [Doc] Holliday [won] me over."

As is well documented, Cato and Shuler played together at Miami Central, with Cato throwing for 9,412 yards and 103 touchdowns in his career. Shuler gained more than 3,000 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns.

Shuler was recruited by Cincinnati and FIU, among others, but cast his lot early with the Thundering Herd. He was impressed during visits with Holliday, long known for his presence in south Florida, and hard-working recruiter JaJuan Seider.

Then Shuler turned his attention to recruit teammate Cato and his other Miami-Dade rivals. Finally, Cato switched gears and joined Holliday's first recruiting class, that of 2011.

"I had to beg him," Shuler recalls. "He was my best friend, I had to beg him to come to college with me. That was crazy. But it was a good experience. He weighed out his options, but he felt like he had more people here he knew."

"Everything was smooth. I met Coach Holliday and Coach Legg, and they were great," Shuler said. "Come to Marshall for four years with Tommy Shuler, or go to FIU with two [good friends] for one year, so that's mainly what it was.

"I decided to come here with Tommy for four years."

And so did a few others. Shuler can be pretty persuasive.

"I got Wilkins to come here, got Cato to come here," he said. "Keith was shaky on coming here; he almost went to FIU but his daddy [ex-MU receiver Keith Baxter] talked to him. I got A.J. Leggett, so a lot of people came here just off my face, and I feel Marshall is a good fit for us."

It took them just a few months to meet up with FIU in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. Amid all the trash-talking and hard hitting, Marshall emerged with a 20-10 victory.

FIU was a member of the Sun Belt, perceived as a lower-level conference. But the next round of realignment brought the Panthers to Conference USA, and the Eastern Division in football.

And it brings the Thundering Herd (7-3, 5-1) to FIU Stadium on Saturday to take on the struggling Panthers (1-9, 1-5). The Herd's Miami natives are excited about this game, which they didn't dream would happen.

"Never. Always looked at [us] and FIU playing each other, but never thought we'd be playing for a conference game, a game that I really need," Cato said.

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

 


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