HUNTINGTON -- The game is slower for Rakeem Cato now, and not just because he’s faster.
Marshall’s sophomore quarterback is ready for his second season as a starter. He’s matured. He’s stronger. He’s wiser. The beard is still in place. And this August in preseason workouts, he’s been dripping with sweat more than emotion.
That’s good, because it was Cato’s emotions that got the best of him and took him out of the starting lineup as he learned before prospering in 2011.
Despite his well-chronicled facial follicles, Cato was anything but a graybeard.
“One big thing Cato has done is he’s matured and he puts things behind him and goes onto the next play,” Thundering Herd Coach Doc Holliday said. “He’s becoming the player we thought he’d be.
“He wants to be a leader and I told him he doesn’t have to be a senior to do that. You can lead as a freshman, sophomore, whenever, but you have to have the respect of your teammates.”
Cato has worked on that and much more as he heads into his second Herd season, one that begins where he made his first college start, at soldout Mountaineer Field against No. 11 West Virginia on Sept. 1 at noon.
He remembered that rain-doused and lightning-interrupted game (twice) as one big “headache.” But after nine starts last year, including a season-concluding three in a row and Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl victory, the 6-foot, 182-pound Miamian isn’t just ready to take the Herd reins.
He’s got a tight grip on them.
“It’s very different,” Cato said of his transition from one year to the next. “The game has slowed down for me. I understand coverages now. Reading the defense (in his most progress from 2011), slowing the defense down, making the right decisions.”
With five 3,000-yard passers exiting Conference USA after last season, Cato comes into 2012 with the most career wins for any C-USA starting QB – five. He also arrives stronger. He only bench-pressed 65 pounds when he first came to campus in June 2011. He’s up to 260 now.
After not even knowing proper weightlifting technique in high school, Cato has become a weight room regular. He’s not only gained weight and his upper body definition is noticeably changed, but he also wanted to add strength for those downfield throws and escapability, too.
His best and most recent 40-yard time is 4.71 seconds – his speed is underrated -- and while he has oodles of running backs and receivers to use as targets for passes and handoffs, he hopes Marshall foes won’t be able to disregard one part of his weaponry and play 11-on-10 this season.
“I want to add (running) to my game so I can catch defenses off guard,” Cato said after Tuesday morning’s workout. “I’ve got good speed to get out of the pocket and get 5 or 6 yards. I know I can do that and use it to my benefit this year.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen have opened up the playbook for Cato as well, after he spent a freshman year simply running whatever was signaled in from the sidelines. He watches tape “every day to see what I did wrong … You try to improve every day you practice.”
Cato’s freshman season was a roller coaster ride, but not that unusual for what might be expected from a true freshman.
He led the Herd to a rare win over Southern Mississippi, then the next week threw four interceptions in a lopsided loss at Ohio’s Peden Stadium. He bounced back to lead Marshall to a signature win at Louisville, which later shared the Big East title, then had a midseason meltdown in a loss at UCF, when he lost the starting job.
Getting back the No. 1 spot when A.J. Graham was injured at Tulsa, Cato helped the Herd finish 3-0 – including an impressive personal performance in a bowl-clinching home overtime win against East Carolina and the bowl victory.
Among major college (FBS, 120 teams) true freshman quarterbacks in 2011, Cato ranked third nationally in passing yards (2,059) behind Wyoming’s Brett Smith (2,622) and former Miami high school rival Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville (2,129).
Cato’s 15 touchdown passes (to go with 11 interceptions on 182-of-304 passing) ranked second among true frosh, behind Smith’s 20 for the Mountain West’s Cowboys. Bridgewater had 14 for the Cardinals.
Cato said his release point remains a work in progress, as well as trying to get his defense reads down quicker as Holliday and Legg want to pick up the pace with the attack.
“Carrying out my fakes, making sure I’m reading the linebackers right,” Cato said of issues on which he continues to work. “Make sure I’m not giving the ball up, keeping the ball, throwing it on time, without a hitch.
“I’ve had too many hitches, holding the ball in my hand … throw it when it’s supposed to be thrown, throwing it on time, whether or not the receiver route is open.”
The Herd quarterback said he has to decide quicker “whether to get out of the pocket or stay in … It was tough at first, but now it’s good, on the basis if the route’s not there, I’m getting out trying to make a play, finding the running back, using my speed and stuff to an advantage.”
Cato said his goals include winning “a couple of championships here” as well as being a four-year starter and grooming himself for an NFL bid.
In Holliday’s long career as an assistant, he’s been part of staffs that have coached and watched quarterbacks on a daily basis like Philip Rivers, Major Harris, Tim Tebow, Jeff Hostetler, Marc Bulger, Oliver Luck, Chris Leak and Pat White.
Holliday said his current QB is on the right track toward adding to that impressive list.
“The biggest thing that’s happened to him is what he’s done with his body, the strength, the weight gain,” Holliday said of Cato. “The mental part, he’s made just as much gain there as in strength.
“I think a lot of that goes back to what he went through a year ago. He went into all of those venues and played to highest levels. He did it against the Louisvilles, Southern Misses and East Carolinas and won. Those are good people.
“There’s nothing better for a player than just having to go do it. Rakeem was able to go in some places and play well.”
Maybe this season, there will be even more reason for Herd foes to “fear the beard.”
“His confidence level is extremely high,” Holliday said. “He’s maturing, making better decisions, and when he makes a mistake he just goes on to the next play.
“Another big thing is he’s playing a lot faster as a quarterback because he understands the offense now. He’s been in it, had it for a year under his belt; he’s able to execute, make his own decisions with confidence.
“You always talk about how teams improve most from Game 1 to Game 2. Quarterbacks improve most from Year 1 to Year 2, especially when they’re young guys with next-to-no experience. I felt like Cato would make a big jump, and he has.”
Watching Cato in practice, you can tell he’s definitely a fuller brush man.