July 21, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – He needs 141 completions, 233 attempts, 2,968 yards, 25 touchdowns and 2,516 yards of total offense to own five Marshall quarterback records.
If he throws for 4,000 yards in 2014 – and he’s averaged more than that over the last two seasons, he will rank among the top seven or eight in passing yardage in major college football history, and would be No. 2 in Conference USA annals.
That’s pretty much how Thundering Herd star Rakeem Cato looks at his senior season with August camp two weeks away.
He’s considered a Heisman Trophy candidate and he’s on watch lists for the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Quarterback awards. Cato will no doubt be on two other QB watch lists when they appear within a few weeks – the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and Manning Award.
That’s all fine and good with Cato, who cherishes much more the appreciation of his coaches and teammates – like the game and season co-captaincy roles he earned last season, along with the MVP trophy in the Herd’s Military Bowl victory over Maryland.
Ask the 6-foot Miamian his goals for this season – with Coach Doc Holliday’s team forecast as the C-USA champion and the potential Group of Five conference participant in a College Football Playoff access bowl like the Peach or Cotton – and the response is pretty much what anyone who knows Cato should expect:
“For me – we all have one goal, all of us. Take every game one at a time, every second at a time and just get through and get the win. That’s all. That’s all. That’s all I have. Every game, get a win.”
Cato heads to Dallas for the C-USA preseason media day this week with Herd defensive tackle James Rouse and Coach Doc Holliday on Tuesday. Cato and Rouse are the league’s preseason Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year and should get plenty of attention at the Wednesday session.
And as he prepares to chase what would be a first C-USA title for the Herd – not to mention Cato “role models” Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich
on the Marshall career record charts – the MU quarterback sat down with me for a football-centric question-and-answer session.
During the interview, Cato’s inner drive emerged more than once, like when he was asked about being overlooked by big-time schools.
“I knew how great I wanted to be at this game,” he said.
So, here’s 12 minutes with No. 12 …
JB: It’s your Year 4 as the starter, what are the tweaks you want to make to your game, and what are the tweaks the offense will make in 2014?
RC: Right now, we’re just trying to limit our turnovers. We don’t want to turn it over as much. As for me, I’m just trying to be more efficient on my throws. Whenever I get a chance to throw the ball, give my receivers as much of a catchable ball as possible every time I release it. That’s about it.
JB: What were your expectations when you came to Marshall? What’s missing so far for you?
RC: My expectations were to come in and do what I do right now – to come in and be a starter for all four years for this university. Just give it everything I have, be the best on the field, rally the team around me. I wanted to be the best person I could be. I wanted to help Marshall have success, win championships.
JB: The struggles you went through in your freshman season (benched for four games), those have been chronicled a bunch … How much has that experience you went through helped you now, as you go into your final year of your college career?
RC: It helped a lot. It kind of humbled me, winning the starting spot, and then losing it, but also keeping a level head and keeping focus that I had to be a team player, doing right for the team. I learned a lot. It was a tough experience. Whether it was taking reps with the twos and threes or throwing with the scout team and making the defense better, I had to do that. It matured me a lot. And throughout those games when I was sat down, I also knew when my number was called I had to make a play, make a play or two just to show I’m still here 100 percent and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get the job back.
JB: Some people look at your career here and see you have five 5-touchdown pass games and some may look at other games where you’ve thrown for a bunch of yards, and they’d say those were your best games. What do you view as your best one, two or three games here?
RC: It’s whenever we win. I just want to win more than anything. I’m always happier when we win, over anything that happens. Winning, it takes care of a lot of things. Winning covers passing TDs. Winning covers rushing touchdowns. It covers everything that’s around the quarterback. So, I’m just trying to be in that category that I want to put my team in the best position to win the ballgame, whether it’s completing a third-down pass that we really needed … and maybe I don’t throw any touchdowns that game, but that play – that play right there – it could have been the reason we won the game, a third-down pass. So, I just try to put myself in the position where we can win the ball game, and let the stats kind of talk for themselves.
JB: It’s obvious you’re competitive nature burns every time you go onto the field, whether it’s a game, practice, whatever … How do you measure that in dealing with your teammates, encouraging or critiquing them? And do you deal with different teammates differently, because of all the different personalities?
RC: Yeah, there are a lot of different personalities. I kind of learn that off the field, to be honest, when I’m around them. I just call them and tell them I’m going to come over and spend a couple of hours at their house with them to see how they’re doing. That’s how I really kind of learn about the players on our team, just call them up and spend time with them off the field on personal life, just be more of a friend and brother to them outside of football. So, when football comes along, now we kind of have an understanding of each other; they know me; I know them. We can talk to one another. It’s not just me talking. You can talk to me and I can receive criticism. Or I can praise them. So, I’ve just been doing that in that nature for the past two or three years.
JB: Do you find yourself encouraging more teammates now and critiquing them more now because they’re more comfortable with you and you with them?
RC: Right. That’s what the off-the-field stuff means, just coming in, being around them more, working out with them off the field, learning more what they’re all about. I think that helps a lot from the quarterback standpoint, and from the player standpoint.
JB: On and off the field, what are the two or three biggest things you’ve learned from your special relationship with Coach (Bill) Legg (offensive coordinator and quarterback coach)?
RC: Just being honest. Everything you do. Honesty. I have yet to see Coach Legg be dishonest or tell me something that wasn’t right. Whether it’s bad or right, if it’s something I don’t want to hear or something I want to hear, he’s always straightforward with me, as honest as possible. He’s just a great role model, a great guy to look up to, not only from a player’s standpoint, but from a ‘man’ standpoint. How he carries himself off the field; how he carries himself on the field, how he carries himself with his family. The other quarterbacks and I get the time to be around him and his family. He’s just a great man to learn from. Coach Legg, he’s been a huge, huge role model ever since I met him.
JB: You’ve built a relationship with Chad Pennington and now, more recently, with Byron Leftwich – that one developed a little more at the bowl game last season. What have those two done working with you that has meant the most to you?
RC: Just coming back to this university and helping a player. It could have been anybody. Those guys, they’re not only talking to me. They’re talking to most of the guys on our team. Just for those two guys to come back and show their appreciation for what they went through here and did, it’s a blessing for those guys and they’re huge role models for me. Anytime I want to talk to those guys about anything, they’re always there, one phone call away. Most of the time, it’s not even about football. It’s about life situations that I may have a question on and I may want their opinion on it. And they always have the right answers for me. But, when it’s about football, you can see – like when I ask them a question – it will be the same thing … They’ll be getting the same thing across, but it will be different, in different terminology. Both of those guys are huge role models for me, and it’s a blessing to have them in my corner.
JB: Back in February 2011, I was in the (Herd) football office the morning your Letter of Intent rolled out of the fax machine. Those coaches were going wild. Obviously, you were valued a lot here. This football staff really wanted you to sign. You weren’t highly recruited. What do you think other schools overlooked about you and your game that maybe people like Coach Holliday and Coach Legg saw?
RC: I had character issues they may have seen or heard about that pushed (other schools) away. But also, my size, just coming out of high school … I’m not the biggest quarterback, or the fastest, or the smartest quarterback. That maybe pushed them away. But me, as myself, I always knew that wasn’t going to be a problem because I knew the work that I put in. I knew how much time I put into the game. I knew how great I wanted to be at this game. So, I just always stayed focused, kept driving, and my fans who have always been around me, who love this game as much as I do, they’ve always just given me that motivation, encouraged me, kept me striving. And here I am today.
JB: What do you think is still the most overlooked part of your game, and the way you play the game?
RC: Right now, I could say (it’s about) size. Still. It’s still part of the factor in some people’s eyes, still part of why some people think I can’t get the job done, or read the defense, or get the ball through passing lanes. I just work at my craft every day. I believe in my coaching staff, I believe in what Coach Legg is telling me, trying to perfect his offense the best way I can … Instead of that I can’t do, I just go at it as hard as I possibly can, keep going, keep growing as a player, keep growing as a man.
JB: Do you think you’re underrated when you leave the pocket and take off with the ball? I think you surprised some people last season when you ran it some.
RC: Yeah, I did (said with a grin). I think people don’t think I can get 5 yards, or get a first down when necessary, when the pocket breaks down, but I know I can. But it all comes down to the play – how the defense comes at me, so if I have to run the ball, I’ve got to run the ball. If I don’t, I just find somebody open, and hope I get them the ball.
JB: What are your goals – personal and team -- for the 2014 season?
RC: For me – we all have one goal, all of us. Take every game one at a time, every second at a time and just get through and get the win. That’s all. That’s all I have. Every game, get a win.