Nov. 19, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Coach Doc Holliday says once Tommy Shuler began badgering his high school buddy and quarterback to follow him to Marshall, it was a done deal.
“All those kids down there (in Miami) listen to Tommy,” Holliday said. “He’s like the Pied Piper down there.”
So, that’s how Rakeem Cato – he of the 9,000 Marshall passing yards and 80 career touchdown passes – made the switch from a commitment to FIU to joining the Thundering Herd, right?
“It was me,” Shuler -- the junior slot receiver who has big Herd numbers in his own right – said, grinning, when asked whether he or Holliday did more to recruit Cato to Marshall. “I take that credit.”
OK, so although Holliday is a recruiting kingpin in south Florida, he is more interested in how Shuler fares as a receiver than as a prospect influence man.
Well, Doc, there’s this:
With six more catches this season, Shuler will be the only receiver in Herd history with two seasons of 80 or more receptions.
And that’s definitely not bad for a program that has produced Randy Moss, Troy Brown, Mike Barber, Darius Watts, Josh Davis and Aaron Dobson.
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Back in the day, Cato and Shuler were teammates and senior classmates at Miami Central High, and a longtime pass combination in Miami neighborhood parks, too. Cato also knew Herd offensive coordinator Bill Legg, who had been in that job at FIU until Holliday coaxed his Putnam County friend and former fellow West Virginia football alumnus and assistant to Marshall’s staff.
Shuler used another Cato buddy – former FIU star receiver T.Y. Hilton, now with the Indianapolis Colts – as a negotiating point, as it were.
“At the last minute, I’m telling (Cato) that Coach Legg had recruited T.Y., and he let T.Y. play and T.Y. made plays for him -- and now you see T.Y. in the NFL,” Shuler said. “Coach Legg has done the same thing with us here, put players in position to make plays.
“Coach Legg was the main part of coming here … I needed a quarterback here; I needed my quarterback here. We just knew Coach Legg was going to take care of us.”
So, Cato and Shuler head back to the neighborhood this weekend, when the Herd (7-3, 5-1 Conference USA) visits struggling FIU (1-9, 1-5) for a 6 p.m. kickoff at FIU Stadium.
It won’t be the first appearance at the Panthers’ home for Cato and Shuler. In a 2010 regular-season game, Miami Central downed Northwestern – led by current Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater – in a 25-22 battle witnessed by 11,000 fans.
“A rivalry game; the place was packed,” Shuler said. “It was crazy. We got out of there with a win, so we need to go down there and get a win again. (He and Cato) just talked about that (Sunday) night.”
Central also defeated Northwestern in the regional playoffs that season, 42-27, as Cato went 18-of-22 for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and Shuler had two TD receptions among his five catches for 79 yards.
The Rockets went on to a Florida Class 6A title.
Now, just four days shy of exactly three years after their first game at FIU Stadium, Cato and Shuler return as major college stars. The last time they were there, they were headed in different collegiate directions.
The 5-foot-9 Shuler had committed to Marshall in August 2010, two weeks before his senior season. Cato had given then-FIU coach Mario Cristobal (fired last winter) a verbal a month before that.
How close was Cato to going to FIU?
“It was real close,” said Shuler, who turned 21 a week-and-a-half ago. “I had to beg him, That’s my best friend but I had to beg him to come to college with me; that was crazy. It was a good experience.
“He weighed out his options but he felt like he had more people (headed to Marshall). We had Craig (Wilkins, wide receiver from Hialeah, Fla.) here; we knew Craig back home. We knew (Baxter, cornerback from Homestead, Fla.) back home, too, and all of us came together as a group.”
Hilton was a rising senior at FIU then. He and the Panthers lost to the Herd in the 2011 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., as Cato, Shuler and Wilkins capped their freshman seasons 7-6.
Wilkins, one of the Herd’s starting outside receivers – he has 24 catches for 302 yards and two scores -- confirmed Shuler’s “Pied Piper” reputation referenced by Holliday.
“I went to their (Miami Central) first round playoff games,” Wilkins said. “I’m watching it, and I afterward I saw Tommy and asked him, ‘What school are you going to?’ He says, ‘Come to Marshall; come to Marshall.’
“It was one of my top three choices then (with Vanderbilt and Cincinnati), and I knew Tommy and I knew Cato, so it was like, ‘I might as well go to Marshall’, because when you’ve got friends there, it helps.”
Wilkins committed to Marshall on Jan. 3, 2011. Three days later, Cato changed his commitment from FIU to the Herd.
So, was it Shuler or Holliday that turned the tide for the quarterback?
“Doc,” Cato said, smiling broadly when told Shuler was taking the credit. “I was real close (to going to FIU). I had committed there before my senior year ever started, just stuck with it. At the end, Tommy and Coach Holliday pulled me over.
“Like on my visit (to Marshall), it was all fun, everything was cool. I’d met Coach Holliday. I’d knew Coach Legg, so I knew what they were about already. It came down to coming to Marshall for four years with Tommy Shuler or going to FIU with T.Y. for one year, so I decided to come here with Tommy for four years.”
Their Miami-to-Marshall connection has paid big dividends for the Herd attack. Last season, Cato led the nation with 350 passing yards per game. Shuler’s 110 receptions were a Herd record – one off the C-USA record – and his 9.2 catches per game led all FBS receivers.
It’s hard to imagine where the Herd would be without the two juniors.
This season – as the Herd goes for a sixth C-USA victory for the first time in its nine league seasons, not to mention a four-game win streak for the first time since 2004 – Cato and Shuler don’t have quite the numbers of a year ago, but Holliday said the offense is better – and they agree.
Cato, averaging 280 air yards per game, is coming off a career-high 456 in a huge comeback win at Tulsa. Shuler has 74 receptions for 798 yards, but his eight touchdowns are two more than in 2012.
Shuler is only 14 receptions from the top five on the Marshall career list. He needs 211 yards to make the top 10 in receiving yards. He needs one TD to reach the top 15 (tied) in career scoring receptions.
“I really don’t worry about numbers,” Shuler said. “I just go out there and perform for my team and then the numbers come by themselves. If you go out and catch balls and make plays, the numbers come by themselves.
“Really, my goal, I knew I wasn’t going to go and get 110 catches this year, because I was going to get a lot of attention (from defenses, which he has). I just wanted to go out there and still let it be known when I go on the field, they respect me.
“I’ll still be close to 100 catches, and I guess I think 800 yards (now), and 10 touchdowns so it’s great, and we’re winning.
“That’s the best part about it, winning.”