Aug. 3, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Another week … another national awards watch list.
That’s how it’s been this summer for Rakeem Cato, but starting Sunday morning it’s about what’s most important to the Marshall junior quarterback.
It’s another college football season, his third, and the fourth for Marshall Coach Doc Holliday.
Thundering Herd players report to begin almost four weeks of preparation for an Aug. 31 opener against Miami (Ohio) at Edwards Stadium.
On Friday, Cato was named to his fourth watch list, with his name among 30 quarterbacks as a candidate for the Manning Award.
Cato is one of only 13 FBS quarterbacks who made all four preseason national award watch lists on which the Herd junior appears – the Walter Camp and Maxwell for national player of the year, and Davey O’Brien and Manning (QBs).
He’s joined by Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), Kolton Browning (UL-Monroe), Derek Carr (Fresno State), Chuckie Keeton (Utah State), Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Taylor Martinez (Nebraska), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Aaron Murray (Georgia).
Cato, the nation’s top passer (350.1 yards per game) in FBS last season, surely doesn’t mind the attention. But he doesn’t dwell on it.
“All that concerns me as a player is quarterbacking Marshall, getting us to a winning team, a winning program,” Cato told me recently. “The only thing I can try to control is everybody around me doing everything good, everything positive in the direction we want to go.
“I have no percentages, yards (as goals). The only thing I’m focused on is having an undefeated season, going to a bowl. We want to win. We need to win. We do that, and everything else will take care of itself.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior – and first underclassman to win Conference USA MVP (2012) – is driven by something deeper than having his name attached to prestigious national awards.
Cato, 21, led Miami Central to a Florida 6A state title in 2010. His maturation at Marshall in a position once held by stars like Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich shouldn’t be surprising, considering his life before he arrived in Huntington.
He grew up in the Scott Projects in the rough Liberty City section of Miami. He has no connection with his father, who has been behind bars. His mother, Juannese, died with pneumonia when her quarterback son was only age 13.
“I live with my grandfather (Eddie Green) and sister, now,” said Cato, who is as enthused as any Herd player about two trips “home” this season, when the Herd visits new C-USA members FIU and FAU.
“It motivates me every day, in everything I’m doing,” Cato said when asked about his trying upbringing. “It motivates me in school, in coming into the weight room and working hard, in practice, playing games.
“Putting in time with my family I have is important to me. I have a lot of pride. I just have to go hard make my family proud. All the nearby games they get there, FIU, FAU games coming up, they came to our UCF game down there, the (2011 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s) bowl game.
“I just try to build that bond as strong as I can.”
He said one of the reasons he feels he wasn’t cowed in quarterbacking a major college team from his first game on the Marshall campus was the thoughts of his late mother.
“I was never worried about that,” Cato said. “I know where I come from. I know my Mom is looking over me and I’m going to make her proud at all times. She was everything to me, and I think about her all the time. When I run onto the field and the huddle, I look up and think about her.
“I know what football means to me, as part of my life. Playing football, I’m going to give it all that I’ve got, no matter what. I’m going to stay humble. I’m playing for her and I’m playing for Marshall.”
Holliday said he feels Cato appreciates the national recognition coming off last season. But the 2012 numbers significant to the quarterback aren’t his 4,201 passing yards, but the Herd’s 5-7 record instead.
“I think he’s fueled by (the attention), but I also think he understands he’d trade all that in to go win a championship, go win a game,” Holliday said. “At the end of the day, when you go win a game and do all those things, the stats take care of themselves.
“I think he’s a young guy that understands … he’s a very competitive guy at whatever he does and I think that’s important to him, but I also think what’s more important to him is that as a football team, we find a way to go win and that’s what he’s worried about.”
Asked earlier this week about Cato’s intangibles, Holliday didn’t get into specifics, but now you can say he’s growing as strong physically and he has been mentally.
When he arrived at Marshall, Cato’s first weightlifting session peaked at 65 pounds. He’d never lifted before. These days, he’s squatting more than 400 and benched 245.
“I think No. 1, if you look at him, he’s matured so much physically,” Holliday said. “He’s just bigger, stronger, and it’s helped him physical standpoint. Mentally, just what he’s gone through the last couple of years, he’s got a lot of games under his belt.
“He came here as an 18-year-old kid who never had been told when to go to school, when to get out of bed, when to do anything and all of a sudden now for two years, he’s been told when to get up, when to go to meetings, to practice, all those things.
“It’s like all kids. If you tell ‘em often enough, sooner or later it starts to kick in a little bit. He’s done a great job. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do and he’s just got to continue to grow.”
Bill Legg, the Herd’s veteran offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, said he hasn’t been surprised with Cato’s leap into national consciousness – but Legg did wonder how the quarterback would cope.
“The one thing you’re always concerned with is early success and how it’s going to affect someone,” Legg said. “You read so many times where the freshman comes in and takes over, has a great year and then goes awry.
“I don’t want to say this surprises me about Rakeem but -- as a coach -- it’s one of the things you always worry about when you’re dealing with young people, is when they have early success, will it affect them in a positive manner and give them more drive, or will it affect them in a negative manner and they say, ‘Well, look what I’ve done’ and I don’t have to listen and I don’t have to work and I don’t have to do those sort of things.
“To Rakeem’s credit, his success has made him hungrier to become better, hungrier to want the offense to be better, made him hungrier for the team to do better. And at the end of the day, that’s what you hope happens. That’s the thing to this point that he’s done a nice job of doing and we’ll keep directing him that way.”
Maxwell, Camp, Manning and O’Brien don’t matter as much to Cato as RedHawks, Bobcats, Hokies, Roadrunners, Golden Hurricane and those other Herd foes.
“Preseason accolades, all that stuff doesn’t matter,” Legg said. “The game’s not played on paper. It’s played with live bodies going out and executing their assignments to the best of their abilities for every single snap in an entire game until the job is done. That’s what Rakeem needs to do as an individual, and I think he will.”
Cato said no one in the Thundering Herd Nation should worry about his head being anywhere other than inside his helmet.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to go out there and play,” Cato says of his attention and preseason predictions that have the Herd in the nation’s top 40 (USA Today, Phil Steele). It’s not about what other people say, it’s about us having the pride to go out there and do it, figure out how to do it yourself, because the coaches can only take you there, can only do so much.
“It’s up to us to get it done, and get it done now. We’ve got to make it happen. The publicity, you can listen to it, but it only goes so far. We’ve got to go out there and play.”