Marshall football: Cato, Grooms honored by Conference USA
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Since grade school, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato has cultivated the skill in his right arm.
This season, he used it to lead the nation in passing. Conference USA's coaches saw it and named him the conference's most valuable player.
Cato, a sophomore from Miami, became the first underclassman to be named league MVP. Teammate Kevin Grooms joined Cato on the awards list, as the running back was named freshman of the year.
Cato is the first Marshall offensive player to win a top conference award since quarterback Byron Leftwich was named the Mid-American Conference's 2002 offensive player of the year.
Grooms is the Herd's first league freshman of the year since Randy Moss won the Southern Conference's award in 1996.
Cato credits his older brother, Antwain, with helping him become a better passer. Antwain was a baseball guy and started Cato's development along baseball lines. That development quickly moved to football.
"He played pitcher and catcher and he taught me his fundamentals on how to throw the ball," Cato said. "We practiced constantly, every night, we'd go out in the back of the house. I'd get on one knee and throw the ball. I'd sit on my butt and throw the ball."
At age 6, he said he was throwing downfield in youth football leagues when other teams didn't.
In 2012, Cato led the Football Bowl Subdivision in completions per game (33.83), passing yards per game (350.08), was third in touchdown passes (37) and fifth in both total offense (352.67 yards per game) and completion percentage (69.5).
All those numbers led C-USA.
With Cato under center, Marshall led the FBS with 365.08 passing yards per game.
In the Herd's single-season record books, he finished first in completions (406), second in attempts (584), third in yards (4,201) and tied for third in touchdowns (37).
That's after a freshman season where he completed 182 of 304 passes for 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns.
It's not just Cato's physical talent that allowed him to make his quantum leap in 2012.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said his competitive nature and desire to improve also played a major part.
"He's kind of got 'it,' " Holliday said earlier this year. "He's got a good feel for what he's doing. He's a student of the game. You watch him on Friday nights at the hotel and we have what we call 'Best Fridays in Football,' him and (receiver) Tommy (Shuler) are sitting there watching tapes. He's constantly studying the game."
Tulsa Coach Bill Blankenship, named Wednesday as C-USA's coach of the year, said Cato had progressed to the experienced stage at a startling rate. He could tell that as he watched film prior to their Oct. 6 game.
"I don't think it's unusual at all if you have a third-year starter sitting back there with that poise about him," Blankenship said in October. "But this is a guy who's about a year into his college career, technically. And he looks like he's a veteran. He operates very calmly and very smoothly."
Grooms led all C-USA freshmen with 737 yards rushing, the fourth-highest total for a freshman in Marshall history. His 6.1 yards per carry was the second-best average in the conference. He scored eight rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown.
He reached those marks despite playing in a very competitive backfield.
Grooms shared carries with fellow freshmen Steward Butler, Remi Watson and redshirt junior Essray Taliaferro.
Butler, Grooms and Taliaferro all had 100-yard rushing games this season, while Watson's season best was 84 yards.
That competitiveness was a major motivator, Grooms said.
"You want to go hard every play and you want to win," Grooms said. "That's about it. You want to be great at your position. Every time you get the ball, you want to make a play for your team."
SMU running back Zach Line was named offensive player of the year, while UCF defensive back Kemal Ishmael was named defensive player of the year and UCF kick returner Quincy McDuffie was named special teams player of the year.
East Carolina running back Vintavious Cooper was named newcomer of the year.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.