It’s Rakeem Cato’s 22nd birthday, and he’s decided to spend it with Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson.
Instead of joining his favorite quarterbacks at a nightclub or swanky restaurant, however, Cato is having them over to his place. Only they’re not actually there and it’s not a party, unless you consider another film session of some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks—one in a growing, repetitive series—a party.
"I’m going to watch film," Cato said when pressed about his birthday plans. "We’ve got practice early tomorrow, too."
While this potential introduction to Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato may not seem all that exciting, consider this a favor: At some point in the 2014 season—perhaps when the Thundering Herd are still undefeated, destroying Conference USA teams like traffic cones that wandered into the express lane—you will know his name.
What’s most shocking, however, is that one of college football’s most productive passers—and a legitimate Heisman dark horse, no matter what he tells you—is not a household name already.
Perhaps it’s because he was under-recruited despite playing in the heart of recruiting country. Or maybe it’s his overall lack of size, a break from the traditional QB mold that serves as a prerequisite on our respect checklist. Or maybe it’s a Marshall thing, another example of our inability to appreciate greatness that doesn’t fit that template.
"If we continue to put in the work and continue to win, eventually people recognize us," Cato said. "We still have a lot more work to do. But when that time comes, we’ll be ready for it."
What’s immediately striking about Cato is his natural ability to remove the spotlight from himself. He doesn’t sidestep questions or tiptoe around answers, but instead brings the bigger picture into focus when he can. He’d gladly stay underrated—or not rated at all—when it comes to individual success and solo achievements.
When the talk shifts to Marshall, the coaches or the players—oftentimes on his own accord—the tune changes. His tone shifts, expectations unfold and a mindset comes into focus.
"My main goal since I stepped on campus was to bring a championship to Marshall," Cato said. "My focus is all on this season and trying to win that championship."
While that might seem unrealistic to the big-brand buyer, don’t dismiss this as propaganda. Marshall’s first three losses last season came by a combined 13 points, and one of those losses came to Virginia Tech in triple overtime.
There’s momentum in the program and familiarity within a potent offensive attack, and head coach Doc Holliday is proving to have much more than a name built for a business card.
"It’s a different vibe for everyone on our team," Cato said. "We’re riding a wave right now, playing with a lot of confidence."
Such confidence was evident in the team’s 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl, giving Marshall its first 10-win season since 2002. Looking over the schedule this season, there is a distinct possibility that this team could finish without a blemish.
|Aug. 30||@ Miami (OH)|
|Sept. 6||vs. Rhode Island|
|Sept. 13||vs. Ohio|
|Sept. 20||@ Akron|
|Oct. 4||@ Old Dominion|
|Oct. 11||vs. Middle Tennessee State|
|Oct. 18||@ FIU|
|Oct. 25||vs. Florida Atl.|
|Nov. 8||@ Southern Miss|
|Nov. 15||vs. Rice|
|Nov. 22||@ UAB|
|Nov. 28||vs. Western Kentucky|
In fact, according to Cato, anything less would be a disappointment.
"I think we have a great opportunity to go undefeated," Cato said. "We have all the pieces in place, a great coaching staff and a great group of players."
Again, as he often does, Cato failed to mention the most important ingredient when it comes to an unbeaten season: the quarterback. And while he might not dwell on what he’s accomplished, we certainly will.
Over the past two seasons, Cato has accounted for 83 touchdowns and thrown for more than 8,100 yards. He's also thrown a touchdown pass in 32 consecutive games, a streak that will continue on this fall.
For comparison’s sake, former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel accounted for 93 scores and threw for just a shade over 7,800 yards in his past two seasons.
That’s not meant to put Cato on the Johnny Football path. In fact, he’d much prefer if you just let him be. But when you look at the magnificent production stacked up against some of the other great quarterbacks in recent years—the Manziels, the Bridgewaters, the Boyds—it becomes apparent that he warrants a seat at the table. At the very least, access to the club.
|Johnny Manziel||Texas A&M||7,820||93||22|
Being overlooked, however, is nothing new to the Florida native. In fact, in a way, this is where his comfort zone lies.
Coming out of high school, 247Sports rated Cato at No. 1,308 in his class overall and the No. 32 dual-threat quarterback in the country. Although he played his high school ball at Miami Central—a school that naturally garners eyeballs and interest from Florida programs—the buzz never got loud enough.
Cato instead wound up at Marshall, a decision that has panned out favorably for both parties. And while he’s happy with where he landed, he also doesn’t forget the quiet phones and empty mailboxes.
"I do all the time," Cato said when asked about playing with a chip on his shoulder. "I remember those times when I was overlooked. I use it as motivation. But I don’t dwell on it and I don’t regret anything."
Part of the reason Cato was overlooked by programs is his size. Listed at just 6’0" and 188 pounds on his official Marshall bio, he’s a breakaway from your create-a-player build.
The NFL buzz hasn’t started, and it may never start. But as much as size is discussed or perceived as limiting, Cato doesn’t look his physical makeup.
"As long as you know what you’re doing and you’re making plays, size really isn’t a factor at all," Cato said. "For me, personally, it’s 100 percent heart. If you’ve got heart, everything else will take care of itself."
For Cato, everything else has taken care of itself thus far. And as good as he’s looked over the past few seasons, over the course of more than 10,000 yards passing, there’s still room for growth in his eyes.
"I want to be more efficient in the passing game and complete more passes, especially with my deep ball," Cato said on his goals for this season. "I also want to become a bigger leader and help out those who need it."
The transition to team leader hasn’t come overnight for Cato, and it’s still an item needing fine-tuning on the spring checklist—at least according to him. Thankfully, he’s had some help along the way.
Former Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry and wideout Aaron Dobson are two of the players Cato credits in helping him mature as a leader. He’s also received guidance from one of the greatest players in school history, a guy who knows a little bit about efficient quarterback play.
"I talk to Chad Pennington a whole bunch," Cato noted. "He showed me the path and the right way of how to do things on and off the football field."
All of the guidance, reps, doubt and birthday film sessions have put Cato in a position to thrive for the 2014 season. It’s also started the slow churn of Heisman hype, even for a player who has struggled to garner any hype at all.
Yet, when pressed about the possibility of winning college football’s most prestigious award, Marshall’s undersized and under-recruited quarterback refused to break character.
"I’m not thinking about the Heisman," Cato said. "I’m thinking about our team and focusing on getting better."
He might not want you to remember the name Rakeem Cato, but trust me, you’re better off not forgetting it. Soon enough, you won’t have a choice.
Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.