Aug. 24, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The lofty expectations for Marshall football in 2014 are primarily rooted in an offense that has been one of the nation's most productive for the past two seasons.
In the 2012 and '13 seasons in the FBS, only Baylor, Texas A&M and Oregon averaged more than the Herd's 516.0 yards per game. Add to that trio defending national champion Florida State, and you have the only four teams that averaged more than the Herd's 41.6-point average over those two seasons.
So, as Marshall broke August camp with an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Edwards Stadium, how does the three-year leader on that side of the ball - and Heisman Trophy candidate -- see Thundering Herd prospects for what is forecast as a special season.
"Right now, it is so much better," MU quarterback Rakeem Cato said when asked to compare the Herd offense with the one that broke camp a year ago en route to a 10-4 finish, Conference USA title-game appearance and Military Bowl victory.
Cato said veteran offensive coordinator Bill Legg - also the Herd's quarterbacks coach - "is doing a great job preparing us to come out and having a great practice every day. Everybody here really understands the offense now, and what we're trying to do with the offense. We've been coming out the last three weeks (of camp) and learning and getting better as players."
Coach Doc Holliday's offense had faced some adversity in camp. Starting offensive tackle Clint Van Horn and guards Michael Selby and Blake Brooks have missed some time.
As the Herd begins game-week preparation for next Saturday's 3:30 p.m. opener at Miami of Ohio, Cato said his bunch is ready to play.
The veteran quarterback pointed to two pieces of the 2014 Herd offense that weren't in place when camp closed last August - a dependable group of outside receivers, and a tough-to-tackle running back in converted tight end Devon "Rockhead" Johnson.
The outside receivers have added stretch-the-field reliability in veterans Davonte Allen - finally healthy - and Craig Wilkins and redshirt freshman Angelo Jean-Louis, and depth in emerging newcomers or inexperienced catchers like Emanuel Beal and Josh Knight.
"It's not me having confidence in those guys," Cato said. "It's those guys having confidence in themselves more, on winning every play and just me letting those guys know the ball is going to be coming their way and making plays when your number is called.
"Those guys took that challenge in the spring and carried it over to camp, and right now I'm just hoping it carries over to the game. But they've been playing great all spring and all camp."
To say that the shotgun-set Cato is thrilled to have Johnson a step or two behind him or beside him in the backfield is an understatement.
"I mean, it's a blessing," Cato said of his bullish, new protector and ball carrier. "'Rockhead' ... He's just another great piece that can help us.
"I mean `huge.' He's just been doing a great job transforming from the tight end position to running back and he did it kind of quickly, did it kind of fast, but he's been great in there."
Cato, who has passed for 10,176 yards in three Marshall season and needs 2,968 yards to pass Chad Pennington's career mark of 13,143, said the offensive line injuries in camp weren`t as much of a concern as some might have expected.
Besides, the absences helped gain valuable experience and reps for backups Trevor Mendelson and Cody Collins ant guard, and redshirt freshman tackle Sandley Jean-Felix.
"I wasn't worried too much," Cato said. "But as a quarterback, you have to adjust to who isn't in there. And those guys who came in, they were doing a great job. I just told those guys, `Just take your time and listen to (line) Coach (Alex) Mirabal and just play your heart out. Educate. That's all I can ask for."
Meanwhile, Cato was honing his own game for his final season in kelly green and white.
Asked what he focused on and what in his mind was his biggest improvement in camp, Cato didn't hesitate to respond.
"It was taking what the defense gave me, coming out and just finding guys and when the guy's open, just get him the ball as quick as possible," Cato said. "Not trying to hold my reads, not trying to force things down the middle or force things into any gap.
"It was about just trying to take what the defense gives me and be more efficient on my reads."
After averaging 534.3 and 500.4 yards and 40.9 and 42.1 points per game in the last two seasons, respectively, can the Herd be even more productive with the ball?
"Right now, we're better," Cato said.