Marshall football: Cato growing up fast
HUNTINGTON -- The quarterback record books of Marshall University are home to some names many folks know. Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and Michael Payton are a few. Thundering Herd Coach Doc Holliday isn't ready to put sophomore signal-caller Rakeem Cato on that list after 11 career starts.
"He's not there yet," Holliday said after Marshall's 52-24 win over Western Carolina on Saturday. "He's a young guy. You need to give him time to grow up."
But with the numbers Cato has put up the past two weeks, there may be no choice but to start lumping him in with some of Marshall's best passers. And many people - Marshall and opposing coaches alike, plus his teammates - say it's Cato's maturation that has made him so effective.
Cato scorched the Catamounts for 377 yards and three touchdowns on 32-of-42 passing. Coupled with his 413-yard performance against West Virginia, it was the first time a Marshall quarterback had consecutive 300-plus-yard passing games since 2004, when Stan Hill threw for 439 yards in a Nov. 5 win over Akron and 348 yards in a Nov. 12 win over Bowling Green.
"I'm learning the system and learning the coverages, so I feel great back there," Cato said.
"I'm feeling calmer. I'm trusting the o-line, trusting my reads and trusting the coaches with the play calling."
The coaches are trusting him, too, expanding the playbook from last season, when he threw for 2,059 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. This season, he's already thrown for 790 yards, five touchdowns and one interception, completing nearly 73 percent of his passes. That completion percentage is up 13 points from last season. His 63 percent career completion rate is third-best in school history among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 300 passes, behind only Pennington and Leftwich.
Cato said he's received some great advice from Pennington, the school's career leader in passes attempted, passes completed, passing yards and passing touchdowns. When wise words come from a player with those credentials, and an NFL pedigree, they're easy to listen to.
"He's a great friend, always giving me positive feedback on the things I need to work on, things I need to tighten up on," Cato said. "We always talk on the friend level. He gives me great tips on throwing the ball and when not to throw the ball. He just took it to the next level with me."
Pennington isn't the only former Herd quarterback offering sage advice. Quarterback coach Tony Petersen sits atop most of Marshall's single-season passing charts and is a former Southern Conference Athlete of the Year. All that has helped Cato do things experienced quarterbacks do, like evenly distributing the ball. Against West Virginia, he completed passes to 13 receivers. He connected with 10 of the 12 players who caught passes against Western Carolina.
"I like his poise," Holliday said. "He's doing a good job of taking care of the football. He's making good decisions and he's just got to continue to grow up. He's going to be a good player. I think from year one to year two, you've seen he's grown up a bunch."
Western Carolina Coach Mark Speir praised Cato's demeanor as well. Speir, who coached at Appalachian State when Armanti Edwards was under center, said some quarterbacks are born with an "it" factor, and Cato is one of those quarterbacks.
"He doesn't get flustered," Speir said. "And those are the dangerous guys. Some guys are just born with that. When you've got a quarterback like that, you can do a lot with him."
Though he's been cool under fire this season, teammates say Cato remains a passionate competitor. Backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel said he sees how seriously Cato takes the sport every day.
"The thing with him, he's a great quarterback and every day, he acts like it's the Super Bowl," he said. "He's an extreme competitor and he goes at it every day."
Tight end Eric Frohnapfel said he saw that during Saturday's first quarter. The Herd could muster just three points out of its first three drives, even though two of them ended in Western Carolina's red zone. Cato had no problem telling the offense that wasn't acceptable, and Marshall scored three touchdowns - all Cato passes - on the next three possessions.
"He was getting on people, saying this isn't the tempo we can play at, we can play better than this," Eric Frohnapfel said. "I think people really responded to that. The couple of drives we went out there and just threw the ball and threw the ball, he was putting the ball right on the money."
Cato may be young, but he knows his role in Marshall's success is an important one. And while the numbers that players like Pennington and Leftwich amassed may remain in the distance, reaching them remains a goal.
"I'm trying to do what they did," Cato said. "I'm trying to live up to their standards. They set very high standards and I'm trying to live up to them."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.