MU football: Cato has become proactive
HUNTINGTON - Rakeem Cato is spending less time thinking these days, and more time doing.
After a freshman season that started and ended with promise, the Marshall University quarterback entered preseason camp with a better understanding of his role and his position. Nine starts behind center as a rookie can do that.
It's that knowledge, and the comfort that comes with it, that he feels can help him take the next step in guiding the Thundering Herd in 2012.
"It's easier now," Cato said. "The game slows down. The speed's a lot slower, so you understand football. You have the experience, so you're out there just playing football."
The physical part was never a problem. It wasn't when he arrived last year from Miami Central after a high school career that included 9,414 passing yards, 103 touchdowns against just 23 interceptions and a 2010 Class 6A Florida state title.
He carried that momentum into his freshman season, beating out A.J. Graham for the starting job and winning Rivals.com Freshman of the Week honors in his second start.
He threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns in that game, a win over eventual Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi.
Yet things got rocky mid-season. After a frustrating start against UCF, where he threw for just 87 yards in a rain-soaked 16-6 loss, Coach Doc Holliday made Graham the starter. Graham stayed there until he injured his shoulder in a 59-17 loss to Tulsa, which allowed Cato to reclaim the job.
Cato responded by leading Marshall to three straight wins - squeakers over Memphis and East Carolina to become bowl eligible, and a 20-10 win over Florida International in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Cato threw for 226 yards and two scores against the Panthers.
Holliday said that Cato's freshman season, both the ups and the downs, was a perfect learning experience.
"For him to gain the experience he did as a freshman in the settings and venues he did, it's going to reap benefits for him this year," Holliday said. "He's playing with a lot more confidence.
"The greatest thing in the world is when a guy can play and not think," he added. "And he's doing that right now. Now he's just reacting."
It's also helped that Cato has taken advantage of the film room.
That, he said, also has helped him spend less time on the field processing and more time reacting.
"Knowing when not to throw the ball and when to run, when to throw the ball to the running back and things like that, I stay in the film room looking at the bad things I did last year and just learn off of that," he said.
Quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen, a former MU signal-caller and 1988 Southern Conference Athlete of the Year, said one could tell how much more comfortable Cato was in the pocket just by looking at him on the practice field.
"He's going through his reads easier," Petersen said. "He's hitting certain things he didn't last year.
He's not letting some things bother him. When they look comfortable out there, it's probably because they are and they're playing better."
Holliday isn't just impressed with the way Cato has improved as a passer.
He also likes how the sophomore has evolved as a leader. Cato may still be young, but he has starting experience many of his teammates have yet to gain. And he's Marshall's starting quarterback, a role that carries great responsibility no matter the age.
"He's improved his leadership skills and the way he's taking charge, it's his team," Holliday said. "He understands that."
Cato knows he needs to be a leader.
At Monday's afternoon practice, he and sophomore running back Travon Van met for an energetic chest bump, and Cato said he must help set the tone for the team.
"I've got to bring excitement to the whole team - defense, coaching staff, the fans, I've got to bring it," he said. "I'm trying to bring enough excitement as I can to get everyone to play at a higher level."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.