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In Coal Bowl finale, quarterbacks center of attention

Referring to a quarterback as being "under center" seems a little outdated, right?

We could consider options like "behind center" or "away from center" or "standing several yards behind center." With the popularity of shotgun offenses, we need an update in terminology.

Whatever we choose, quarterbacks remain, well, the center of attention.

That's the case in the seventh and final game of the current Friends of Coal Bowl contract.

On one side is West Virginia senior Geno Smith, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who'll likely shatter most of the program's passing records this season - possibly one or two in the season opener against Marshall - provided he stays healthy.

Marshall has Rakeem Cato, a skinny 6-0, 182-pound true sophomore who is statistically ahead of where Smith was after his freshman season.

If inclement weather doesn't again abbreviate the game, each could post monster numbers in their 2012 debut.

Smith finished fourth nationally last season with 4,385 passing yards. Cato was fourth among freshmen quarterbacks with 2,059 yards.

Cato tossed 15 touchdown passes last season, which equaled Chad Pennington's total from his freshman season. The difference: Cato threw just 11 interceptions - or one for every 27 pass attempts. Pennington threw 15 picks - one every 23 attempts.

The Thundering Herd coaching staff has had Cato on campus for a full offseason, something he didn't have by waiting to arriving in June before his first season of college football.

Cato has a better grasp of the offense and will be expected to do more pre- and postsnap. The offense will be more about tempo and Cato will have to make the split-second decisions that he wasn't allowed to make through his nine starts and 13 appearances in 2011.

"I think the coaches are going to take him off the leash," said wide receiver Aaron Dobson, one of Cato's favorite targets.

WVU quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital is about to embark on his second season with Smith. The second-year leap, he says, should prove significant for both signal-callers. "For Geno it is Year 2 of communicating with Coach (Dana) Holgorsen and sometimes Dana is hard to communicate with on the sidelines, so you have to build that relationship," Spavital said. "That and managing the game and not duplicating the same mistakes as last season.

"Now when Dana signals something Geno understands what he's supposed to do."

Scary, right?

Smith is coming off a season where he obliterated WVU passing records and is considered a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate and is being bandied about as a Heisman candidate. He had the top three games of total offense in WVU history and has four of the top seven single-game passing performance in program history.

And that 70-point Orange Bowl performance is lingering for pundits and opponents.

"He can always improve," Spavital said. "The 70 points was nice, but people forget we didn't put up a lot of points in previous games. We were putting up numbers, but not points. The Orange Bowl gave him a taste of it and showed him what he's capable of doing in this offense."

Spavital doesn't study the opposing quarterback, but he didn't hesitate to speculate on Cato's improvement through spring and the offseason.

"He's going to take a huge jump," Spavital said. "The more experience you get, the better you are going to be. Last year when Geno was in his first year with us, he had the experience but the game was fast.

Now the game is slowing down for him. The more you go out there and play the better you are going to be.

"The Marshall quarterback, Cato, he's going to be a lot better than he was as a freshman." Consider this, too.

After Cato regained the starting quarterback role, his game came together. In the regularseason finale against East Carolina and the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl against Florida International, Cato completed 50-of-68 passes for 567 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.

Smith's numbers in his final two games, which includes the 70-33 Orange Bowl rout of Clemson: 55-of-78, 644 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

Cato completed 73.5 percent of his passes in those two games; Smith 70.5 percent.

Cato averaged 8.33 yards per attempt; Smith 8.26.

And the best, for both, seems yet to come.


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