A dichotomy defines the quarterback position. Nobody’s stands more alone as offensive director, propellant, first talking point in victory or defeat. Yet, as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Joe Theismann and Trent Dilfer both like to say, quarterback is football’s most dependent position. Help wanted.
Take Marshall’s Rakeem Cato, a quarterback since his days playing at Miami’s Gwen Cherry Park and soon-to-be NCAA record holder. Cato’s the one pictured in almost every story mentioning dark horse Heisman Trophy candidates or Marshall as a Non-Power Five interloper in the College Football Playoff.
If FIU wants to blow up the Marshall Death Star during Saturday’s Homecoming game on Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium, the Panthers know Cato’s the detonation target. Get to Cato somehow or be yet another annihilated victim in the Imperial Thundering Herd’s path to a Conference USA title and a major bowl spot.
Cato’s used to that position. He’s embraced it.
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“He’s outspoken on the field because he wants everyone to do things better, to do things right,” said TY Hilton, father of former FIU star Eugene “T.Y.” Hilton and one of Cato’s coaches at Gwen Cherry. “He’d get in a kid’s chest and say, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to get going.’”
But Cato’s also conscious that he’s rarely walked alone. Not after his mother died of pneumonia when he was 13; not when he left Liberty City for the Marshall campus.
Not on the field, where with one touchdown pass Saturday, he’ll have a touchdown pass streak of 39 games, breaking the NCAA record he shares with North Carolina State and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson (yes, that Russell Wilson).
“I think it’s a blessing to tie with his record and to do it with a great group of guys I’ve been working with for the last few years,” Cato said.
Ask him his proudest college football memory, Cato names not a personal or team moment, but a school one: last year’s 45-34 win over Tulsa on Nov. 14, the 33rd anniversary of the 1970 plane crash that wiped out the Marshall football team.
Cato might not like talking about the skills that produce 11,874 career yards passing, 77 career touchdown passes or 12,431 career yards of total offense.
He says his best assets are “being a great practice player. Always trying to get better as a player and a leader” (as a person? “Same thing. Always being there for my family, being there for my [two] kids.”)
FIU coaches have no problem talking about Cato.
“He’s really smart. Makes great decisions, gets the ball out quick,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “He makes the plays when they’re there. And he can make plays when they’re not there. He’s not the runner we’ve seen of some guys, but he is a good runner. But when he steps up and moves around the pocket, his eyes are always downfield.’’
FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said, “He’s seen about every coverage that you can see against what they do. ... He throws the deep ball as good as anybody I’ve ever seen throw it.”
An assessment backed up by Cato’s 16.33 yards per completion this year, second in the nation.
Cato’s leading receiver is Tommy Shuler. Of course. They met each other at Gwen Cherry during elementary school days. When Cato’s mother fell sick one day and died three days later, 13-year-old Rakeem Cato started to see teamwork on the most real-life level.
“All my sisters and brothers [he’s the fifth of seven], my grandmother and grandfather, close friends, the Shulers, the Hiltons,” Cato said. “They rallied around me.”
Sometime Saturday, possibly with a completion to Shuler or Craig Wilkins, Cato will move past former NFL starter Byron Leftwich into second place on Marshall’s all-time passing list with only former NFL starter Chad Pennington ahead of him. At his current pace, he’ll take from Pennington the Marshall records for attempts, completions, passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense.
Cato says he hasn’t thought about all that yet.
“Right now, I’m just trying to stay focused on the team and the offense as a group. Everything else will take care of itself,” Cato said.