Derek Redd: With legs, Cato aims to expand repertoire
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato gained national renown last season with his arm, and for good reason. Conference USA's reigning MVP led the Football Bowl Subdivision in both completions and passing yards per game.
Ehh, not so much.
Cato never considered himself a running quarterback. He said so - emphatically - more than once last season and the numbers back it up. In 12 games, Cato carried the ball 57 times. To compare, Essray Taliaferro, Marshall's fourth-leading rusher last season, had 58 carries, including 27 against East Carolina alone. The Herd ran for 2,030 yards last season. Cato accounted for a whopping 31 of them.
It's nothing new. Cato threw for a Dade County-record 9,412 yards and 103 touchdowns in his high school career. He's from Miami for Pete's sake, a city that Bob Griese, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde helped make famous. Quarterbacks throw in that town, my friends.
Watch him this spring, though, and the scrambles up the field that once happened at about the same frequency as Bigfoot sightings are becoming more commonplace. Cato said he's started tucking and running a little more in part because the opportunities are just there.
"I'm so used to throwing the ball and throwing the ball," Cato said. "I'd come back and watch film and see a big lane and just say, 'Wow, I could have gotten maybe 15 yards right there.' "
He's not the only one used to him throwing the ball. Opponents are, too. His 584 pass attempts in 2012 were the most of any quarterback in the FBS. He completed a ton of them - 69.52 percent to be exact, and he connected on nearly four more passes per game than his next closest challenger - but he started to see defenses drop back into pass coverage and dare him to run the ball himself.
So Cato is making sure that, this spring, he's working on his personal running game. If opponents want to challenge his legs, he wants to make them regret it.
"I've got to force myself to do that, but I also have to be patient with it. I can't just catch the ball, look one way and just start running. I have to go through my progressions and if the read isn't open and they force me to run, I have to run. I'm not just going to go bananas and just run."
One catalyst in Cato's increased scrambling is the Herd defense's reliance on man-to-man coverage this spring.
New defensive coordinator Chuck Heater wants more man coverage out of his unit, so they focus on it every practice. Offensive coordinator Bill Legg said that gives his players plenty of practice in attacking it, and that strategy includes Cato turning upfield.
"It's part of who we have to be, especially if you're going up against what our defense is doing, which is a lot of man coverage. The quarterback's got to become a piece that'll hopefully diminish the volume of man coverage we see."
For a guy who never considered running a major part of his repertoire, Cato's pretty good at it. He's had a few longer runs this spring, working his way through the defense with a menu of jab steps and shoulder feints to force defenders off balance. His first two scrambles of Saturday's scrimmage went for nine and 10 yards, respectively.
"It's always been a part of my game," he said. "It's just a feel out there. I've got good feet and I know how to work my feet."
Granted, he's not playing in true game conditions. Cato is clad in a red non-contact jersey and anyone who took a legit shot the guy who threw for 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns last season could guarantee he'd be sent to playing-time Siberia.
So we'll have to wait and see if Cato will continue to be as effective of a runner when opponents come barreling toward him out for blood.
If he does run this fall, he already has a pretty sweet first down celebration down pat. It's not the strong chop his longtime teammate Tommy Shuler uses when he moves the chains. It's smoother, more subtle, his arms gliding from one side to the other as he points forward. It's a move he first saw Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton use.
"I like Cam as a quarterback," he said.
If Cato's trying to become a better running signal-caller, there are worse players to emulate than the guy who, as a rookie, set the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season. Of course, it helps Newton that he's 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds. Cato stands 6 feet tall and weighs 184 pounds. It's a stronger 184 - and Cato credits new strength and conditioning coach Scott Sinclair for his increased speed and power - but it's still 184.
Don't expect Cato to morph into Newton's second coming or Marshall's offense to mirror Georgia Tech's. The Herd averaged nearly 41 points per game last season by focusing on Cato's arm. There's nothing broken to fix.
Yet that doesn't mean Marshall can't tinker. And maybe if Cato ever claims again he's not a running quarterback, defenses will have to pause and wonder whether he's telling the whole truth.
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.