By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
As far as breakout seasons go, Rakeem Cato’s second tour as Marshall’s starting quarterback was as big as any.
Cato led the nation with 350.1 yards and 34 completions per game, and his 37 touchdown passes were tops in Conference USA. His career 66 percent completion percentage thus far is the highest ever at Marshall, a school that has boasted the likes of Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich behind center.
Still, he knew he could get better. Make that, had to get better.
He has found that improvement in new strength and conditioning coach Scott Sinclair. Working with Sinclair over the summer helped Cato get stronger; he’s added just six pounds to his frame, from 182 to 188, but his arms are noticeably thicker.
“It’s all Coach Sinclair,” Cato said. “It’s not just me, but the whole team. I was willing to learn from him. He’s got some great things going, and everything he does, he’s just got a lot of energy. He’s always happy. You’ll probably never see him mad. He’s a great coach and I learned a lot from him.”
Sinclair’s help goes beyond weights and Muscle Milk. The former assistant strength coach at Central Florida has also made an impact with his postive outlook.
“He came in with an attitude of winning,” Cato said. “He didn’t come in here with any negative (thoughts). I try to grow under him and learn more from him. He came in, and everything he was telling me to do I just went hard at it. Running to the next station or coming right back from the bathroom, that’s what I’m doing.”
Cato probably couldn’t be trusted with a hall pass in high school, but confidence in him to lead the offense has been well earned.
And he’ll be doing so without the gloves that seemed to pester some Marshall fans.
“I can throw the ball without gloves now,” Cato said. “I’m a lot crisper and my arm got a lot stronger. Running the ball, I got a lot faster. I’m quicker on my feet. It helps a lot.”
Cato said he started wearing gloves at an all-star game in Florida.
“We had to play with Nike balls, and the Nike balls are so thick and big that I couldn’t get a good grip,” he said. “I tried it with gloves and they fit it perfectly. I went from there and just stuck with it.
“They’re not gone completely. They work for me. I don’t know about other quarterbacks. I can only speak for me and they work for me.”
The junior from Miami is coming off a season in which he established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in Football Bowl Subdivision. He threw for 4,201 yards to go with his 37 touchdowns en route to being named the C-USA Most Valuable Player. He became the first underclassman to win the award.
Cato never expected such success to come so soon. But he’s blocking it all out and concentrating on getting the Herd back to a bowl game and maybe even a league championship.
“I just play football the best way I can,” Cato said. “What I’m trying to do now is (ignore) the stats, the numbers, the MVPs. My mind is only set on one thing and that’s winning. If it’s not about winning, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Based on Marshall’s offensive explosion of a year ago, and a defense that can only improve after ranking as one of the worst in the FBS last year, some are expecting a big year for Marshall. USA Today placed the Herd 40th in its preseason rankings.
Cato said the players will have to block all of that out and concentrate on winning as many games as possible in 2013.
“Just stay focused. Have fun and not think of it too much. Don’t think about outside (distractions). Just play football like you’ve been playing your whole life. All us young men here, we love football. If we didn’t love it we wouldn’t be out here. That’s the kind of mindset I’ve got to get around to the team, and we have a great job with that. Everybody is bonding more, hanging out more, talking to each other more.”
Coach Doc Holliday has preached a team mentality, even announcing at last week’s annual Paint the Capital City Green event in Charleston that Herd jerseys will not bear players’ names this season. It’s a concept that Cato has embraced.
“I just want to come out here and have fun,” he said. “God blessed me with a great individual season, but that’s not on my mind. Everybody around here in the Marshall community is concentrated on winning.”
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Captains this season will be chosen by the coaches on a game-by-game season. Those chosen for Saturday’s season opener against Miami (Ohio) were defensive back Monterius Lovett, offensive tackle Garrett Scott, running back Essray Taliaferro and defensive end Jeremiah Taylor.
At the conclusion of the season, four season captains will be chosen by the team among those student-athletes who were named captains during the season.
— E-mail: gfauber@