HUNTINGTON - Rakeem Cato's likeness, or a silhouette thereof, is becoming a hot item on the Marshall campus, much to the amusement of the young quarterback's teammates.
"I think it's funny," said tackle Ryan Tillman. "He's stuck with that look for the next couple of years, but I know he enjoys it."
Linebacker George Carpenter: "You know what? All I can do is laugh. Cato, he wear that beard proudly, so I respect him. When he sees the shirts on campus, I guarantee he feels proud - on game day he can just play, and not worry what they have to say about him."
Cato himself carried a "Beard Mafia" T-shirt into player interviews Monday, one given by a fan after the Thundering Herd's 26-20 win Saturday over Southern Mississippi. Like everything else, it seems, the freshman is taking his newfound fan popularity in stride.
But he did admit his surprise. He fully expected to pick up the Marshall playbook as well as he has, read defenses as well as he has and develop chemistry with his receivers.
But he didn't expect the outline of his hair - top of head, facial and eyebrows - to become a logo, as it was before he took his first college snap. That circulated to a wide audience on Facebook and other social venues with the motto "Fear the Beard."
In interview settings, he barely changes expression, but you know he's excited - doubly so after playing before Herd fans for the first time and winning a big game.
"I love 'em," Cato said. "They're friending me on Facebook. They recognize me in class, and I just want to keep them happy and keep them proud."
Cato's improvement from the Herd's opener at West Virginia to the win over Southern Miss mirrored his progress from the moment he stepped on campus - steady but unrelenting, and certainly not slow.
The Miami native went 27-of-42 for 275 yard with three red-zone touchdowns - 10 yards to Aaron Dobson at the end of the first half, 11 to Gator Hoskins to begin the second half and 17 to Dobson again on a perfectly placed lob to the back line.
He had two interceptions. One came when the ball simply slipped out of his hands; on the other, he failed to identify Southern Miss linebacker Korey Williams sitting in a zone.
Cato's most impressive work may have come with that first TD drive, which came in the two-minute drill and concluded with 27 seconds left. He had just 41 yards to march after a short punt, but the Herd was still seeking its first offensive touchdown of the season.
And there was the matter of being down 17-3. The Herd really needed seven going into the half, and got it.