Marshall football: Cato, Shuler clicking for Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato has no qualms looking for receiver Tommy Shuler, even when every opposing defender is doing the same thing.
Cato and Shuler leaned on each other for a pair of record-breaking seasons in 2012, and their relationship, forged over years in Miami, Fla., hasn't changed in 2013. Actually, they're connecting at an even higher rate. The two say it's their close, longstanding friendship that's made it work.
The Thundering Herd hopes that synergy continues this Saturday, when it hosts a Conference USA newcomer, the University of Texas at San Antonio for a 2 p.m. homecoming meeting (Time Warner Cable SportsChannel Texas).
Cato and Shuler took a bond that helped earn Miami Central High a Class 6A state football title and transplanted it in Huntington. In 2012, it led to Cato being named Conference USA MVP while leading the nation in passing yards and Shuler being named an all-conference first-teamer while setting a single-season school record with 110 catches.
Of those 110 receptions, 104 came from the arm of Cato, who completed 406 passes last season. The Cato-to-Shuler connection accounted for 25.6 percent of Cato's total completions. This year, 33 of Cato's 87 completions have gone to Shuler, a 37.9-percent clip.
"Our chemistry is great," Shuler said. "He knows where to put the ball. His accuracy, that's the best thing he has, his accuracy. He can put the ball somewhere that nobody else knows where to get it. But I know where it's going to be. Just going out, practicing every day and doing the little things we need to do, it pays off on Saturday."
Virginia Tech entered its game with Marshall with the Football Bowl Subdivision's second-best pass defense, allowing just 106.3 yards per game. Shuler eclipsed that total himself with 120 yards on 10 catches. Cato threw for 228 yards total on 19-for-41 passing. That Cato looks for Shuler so often is no surprise. Even before that season-best performance against the Hokies, Shuler had more catches (23) than the next two Herd receivers combined (21).
Cato and Shuler have been on the same football team since the sixth grade, and from the youth leagues to high school to the present, a deep trust between the two has developed.
"Every time I throw the ball to him, I know something positive is going to happen on that play," Cato said. "Even if it's a bad ball, he'll deflect the ball to keep the guy from intercepting it. It's the small things you have to have confidence in with your receiver and the receiver to have confidence in with the quarterback."
That confidence allows the two to work through things when they don't go perfectly and to keep differences of opinion a debate and not an argument. They can talk to each other about why a pass went astray and discuss each other's preferences for a particular play or route. They can disagree and they can work it out.
"That's great," Shuler said. "That's football. We'll be on the field and we'll have a little debate. I'll be like, 'I think you should throw the ball here,' and he'll say, 'Nah, I should throw the ball right here.' So we'll go home and we'll take the debate to the house.
"Then we go back and watch film and take the debate to the film room, just to know that, on Saturday, we'll be on the same page," he added. "Having that debate is great because we're both looking at football and both understanding the game together."
And the two say their devotion to football and their diligence in studying it are among their strongest bonds. They enjoy watching film and poring over the finer points of the game. And that's led to Cato sitting second in C-USA and 26th in the country in passing yards per game (269.3) and Shuler sitting first in the conference and seventh nationally in receptions per game (8.3).
"He understands film very well and understands all the coverages," Cato said. "It's not me just telling him what all the coverages are. He understands the coverages."
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday understands his fortune in what he has with Cato and Shuler. He admits that, in the first couple of years in his Herd tenure, there were players on his roster that didn't seem to love the process of playing winning football. They didn't enjoy the preparation for game day as much as game day itself. That's not the case anymore, he said, and Cato and Shuler are prime examples of that.
"I think for the most part, we've got a lot of guys who do love it right now, but those two kids, they take liking football to a different level," he said. "They eat, sleep and drink it. It's given them a way out. It's given them an opportunity to make something of themselves. They understand that."
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.