Marshall football: Cato's passion shows in his growth
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Rakeem Cato is never without football. If the Marshall coaches give the team time off, he'll spend it drawing up plays, or watching film, or grabbing a couple of receivers to run some routes and work on their timing.
That wasn't a learned behavior, he said. It's an instinct owned by any young man growing up in Miami, Fla.
"Down in Miami, it's strictly football," Cato said. "That's the biggest thing down there. It's straight football from 6 years old all the way up. They take it so personally down there, you have no choice but to get better and want to become an NFL player."
They like winners in Miami, be it the Dolphins, Heat, Marlins or Hurricanes. All those teams own championship trophies. Cato does, too. His Miami Central High School team won the 2010 Class 6A Florida state title. He'd like to add some college championship hardware to his collection.
Sure, he has some personal accolades - Conference USA MVP, preseason C-USA player of the year, the top Football Bowl Subdivision passing numbers in 2012 - but, in his mind, those aren't enough. The mission in 2013 is to improve one number, his win total.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday has seen a lot of changes in his star quarterback. Cato began his career as a skinny, 160-pound freshman thrust into a starting role from his first collegiate game. Now he's a 192-pound junior coming off a breakthrough season where he led the FBS in completions (33.83) and passing yards (350.08) per game.
Holliday knows Cato wants to get better, and improving his on-field performance is part of that. But it's not the only part.
"I think he's fueled by it," Holliday said, "but I also think he understands that he'll trade all that in to go win a championship and go win a game. At the end of the day, when you win, all those stats take care of themselves. He's a competitive guy in everything he does. I think it's even more important to him that, as a football team, we find a way to go and win. That's what he's concerned about."
Beyond the raw numbers, Cato wants to become a more prominent voice in the locker room. Being a prolific starting FBS quarterback already carries weight in meeting rooms, but Cato wants his leadership to be more than just about touchdown passes and yards per game. He's a fiery, competitive player - you don't win in talent-gorged Dade County high school football without those traits - who wants his teammates to take the game as seriously as he does.
"I've really got to take charge," Cato said. "I'm the quarterback of this team. I have to set my standards high. I have to play the game right on the field and off the field."
Part of that is transforming his body from wiry to strong and durable. Cato's coaches all talk about how he attacked his offseason weight training, soaking in the advice of new strength and conditioning coach Scott Sinclair. Offensive coordinator Bill Legg said Cato squats up to 425 pounds and bench-pressed 285 pounds twice with ease. If a quarterback's bench total mattered, Legg said, they might have let him go for 300 pounds.
Not only has that added bulk to better absorb hits, it's made a difference in his throwing velocity. Cato said he could feel it when he tossed the ball to receivers on the opposite side of the field. It didn't sail. It darted. Legg could see the difference, too.
"His arm's stronger without having to throw the ball any differently than what he did the day he walked in the door," Legg said. "The ball jumps out of his hands with a few more mph's than in the spring. And in the spring it was a few more mph's than it was in the previous fall. That's going to make his arm last longer."
Cato had a stronger scrimmage this past Saturday than he did in the Thundering Herd's first scrimmage of the preseason, something the entire offense could say. He completed 13-of-21 passes for 141 yards and a 27-yard touchdown to Devon Smith. He also scored the offense's only rushing touchdown, a 6-yard scramble that showed off a side to his repertoire that has grown since the start of spring.
Throughout the preseason, Legg said Cato has been showing the veteran traits necessary of an upperclassman quarterback, both through his play and through his interaction with his teammates.
"From a maturity standpoint, from a comfortability standpoint, he knows his teammates without reservation now," Legg said. "He knows the offense without having to think. Now he can just go out and play and react. Now when he says something to somebody, he knows where they're coming from and they know where he's coming from."
Cato knows much is being expected from the Herd this season. Some pundits are calling for at least 10 wins, a level Marshall hasn't reached since 2002 when Byron Leftwich led the Herd to an 11-2 record, a Mid-American Conference title and a GMAC Bowl win.
"That's their job," Cato said. "They get paid for that. We get a scholarship to play football. We have to go out there and play football for all of that to come true. We just have to play good football like I know we can. That'll take care of itself."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.