Marshall football: Cato is in good company
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Rakeem Cato's assault on the Marshall University football team's passing records has only just begun, and he already finds himself in rarified air.
His 375 completions in 2012 have shattered the Thundering Herd's best single-season mark. His 544 attempts are second-best in a season in school history. His 3,883 yards are the fourth-best total for one season and his 32 touchdowns are seventh-best.
The sophomore still has at least one game to go to build on those numbers. He'll lead the Herd (5-6, 4-3 Conference USA) into Greenville, N.C., on Friday for a 2 p.m. clash on CBS Sports Network with East Carolina (7-4, 6-1 C-USA). He'd love to have two more games, and if he helps beat the Pirates, he'll get them. One more win makes the Herd bowl-eligible for the second straight year.
As Cato continues his journey through one of the best seasons for a quarterback in Marshall history, he has two former Herd passers he can thank for their advice. One, Tony Petersen, is Cato's quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator. The other, Chad Pennington, is considered the standard-bearer among Marshall quarterbacks.
Cato said having two of Marshall's greatest signal-callers in his corner has helped him in a very short time become one of college football's most prodigious passers and reach some of his own lofty expectations.
"Coming in as a freshman, I'm thinking I'm going to come in and do the exact same things and my standards were extra high," he said. "It didn't happen as I planned. Stuff like that will turn you and bring so much anger and emotion. That's when (Pennington) came in and Coach Petersen, just slowing down the game and just taking time doing it and just focusing."
In one category, the student has bested the teacher. Cato now owns the single-season completion record over Petersen (340 in 1987). Petersen's single-season attempts (622 in 1987) and yards (4,902 in 1987) look safe.
The Herd quarterbacks coach isn't sighing in relief. Let 'em all fall, he said.
"I hope he breaks any record I've ever had," Petersen said. "That means he's doing a great job. I think he's a lot better quarterback than I ever was."
That means something coming from one of the most successful quarterbacks in Marshall history. In 1987, as he shattered the Herd's single-season passing marks, he led the team to the Division I-AA national title game, where Louisiana-Monroe edged Marshall, 43-42. He was named Southern Conference Offensive Player and Athlete of the Year before signing as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings.
The sum of those experiences put Petersen in a unique position to teach Cato how to improve his game. It's not just "do as I say." It's "do as I did" as well. And Petersen feels Cato appreciates the advice, especially considering Petersen did many of the things Cato is trying to accomplish.
"I think Cato and I have a good relationship as far as a player and coach," he said, "and I think he respects what I have to say because I played the position at a pretty decent level."
There have been rough patches in the relationship. When Cato was learning on the fly as a true freshman starter, his competitiveness would sometimes boil over into anger. That culminated at the end of last season's loss at the University of Central Florida, when Cato stormed over to the sideline phone and argued with Petersen.
That outburst cost Cato his starting job, giving it to former quarterback A.J. Graham for four games. But Cato was quick to apologize to both the team and Petersen. He didn't make excuses, but worked his way back into the starting lineup. When Graham injured his shoulder against Tulsa, Cato reclaimed the job and led the Herd to a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win over Florida International.
Cato knows what Petersen's guidance has meant to his growth as a quarterback and his eye-popping 2012 numbers. He treasures it, along with the knowledge that Petersen has walked the identical steps he has.
"It's easy knowing I don't have a quarterback coach that played somewhere else or didn't play football at all," Cato said. "My quarterback coach played here at Marshall and he knows what it takes to win. He played so great at this level and also had the opportunity to play at the next level."
There are some times, though, when a young quarterback needs advice from someone beyond his position coach, someone who's shared his experiences and knows exactly what he's going through.
Who better than Pennington?
Heisman Trophy finalist. Two-time Davey O'Brien Award finalist. Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Three-time all-MAC first-team quarterback. Eleven-season NFL veteran.
"I'm not his coach," said Pennington, who holds Marshall's single-season record for touchdown passes with 39. "I'm just a friend, but I've been in his exact same position so I know where he's coming from and I can give him a different perspective sometimes, with him knowing there's no consequence behind it."
Their backgrounds couldn't be any more disparate, the 36-year-old country boy from the suburbs of Knoxville, Tenn., and the college sophomore from the metropolis of Miami.
"So different," Cato said with a smile. "So different."
They realize those differences and mention them from time to time. Yet they haven't thrown up any roadblocks to a relationship that goes beyond chalk talk. There's plenty of discussion about football, but the conversations have often gone deeper since the two first met after Cato arrived at Marshall. They linked up in South Florida and bonded over barbecue ribs at a local restaurant.
Once he got past Pennington's ability to polish off a plate of ribs, he found that he had gained an invaluable mentor and friend.
"We talk about everything," Cato said. "We'll talk three or four times a week, about my relationships with a girl, with anything, not just about football. Any advice I need, I'll call him."
Those talks about relationships have been vital, especially when it comes to the sideline and the locker room. Above the physical demands of lining up under center are the mental and emotional demands, Pennington said. Communication and working with teammates is paramount.
"That's the secret to being a quarterback, being able to work with different personalities, being able to motivate people and also communicate with them," Pennington said. "So many people forget that. If there's any position on the field that's a people position, it's the quarterback position, because your success as a quarterback is affected and is determined by those other 10 guys in the huddle. You can't do it alone."
At the beginning of their relationship, Cato took Pennington to Miami Central High, where Cato won a Class 6A Florida state championship and ended his high school career as the most prolific passer in Dade County history. It was there that Pennington learned he was Cato's favorite quarterback growing up.
It blows Cato's mind sometimes, knowing he can soak in advice from a man he idolized as a child, a man he looked up to for his poise, competitiveness and leadership both on the field and in the community. Cato wants to reach those heights one day and takes every word Pennington says to him to heart.
"He's someone you can follow every step and he won't lead you the wrong way at all," Cato said. "He sets his standards high and I set my standards to his."
This season and beyond
Pennington and Petersen's advice often is identical, Cato said, and one of their most important nuggets of wisdom is to never waste a second.
"Chad and Coach Petersen always tell me that, whenever you do anything, do it with a purpose," Cato said. "Don't do anything just to do it. Me just throwing the ball out there, I could be working on something, working on my arm or seeing how I can throw the ball better."
Cato's growth is nowhere near complete. Pennington and Petersen both say he can still grow as a passer and a leader. He still has the opportunity to boost his resume this season. Win Friday, and Cato will lead Marshall to back-to-back bowl games. The last Herd quarterback to do that was another all-time great, current Pittsburgh Steelers backup Byron Leftwich, who captained Marshall to consecutive GMAC Bowls in 2001 and 2002.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said Cato's close relationships with two of the Herd's most decorated quarterbacks have played a major role in his quick ascension.
"Cato's got respect for what Tony's done," Holliday said. "And I think it helps with Chad Pennington going through and what Chad has done. Cato emulates those guys."
And those former Marshall signal-callers, as well as many others, have embraced Cato as the next player to carry the mantle. They've welcomed him as part of an elite club, one that has gained national recognition and one with a rich history. Being accepted by those former quarterbacks has made it even more important for him to join them at their level.
"Knowing I have great people around me and great quarterbacks, people who help me mature as a man, I have to set my standards high," Cato said. "There are great players and great men who have mentored me the best way they could."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.