2014 Heisman Sleeper: Marshall QB Rakeem Cato

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Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato led the nation in passing in 2012 with 4,201 yards. With little room to elevate his output, what did he do?

Cato worked on his ground game.

A year ago in spring practices, Cato worked on his scrambling, a skill he showed off at Miami Central High School but had yet to unleash in college. Adding that dimension to his repertoire was a key to improving an already explosive Marshall offensive.

Indeed, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday went into the 2013 offseason emphasizing a more balanced run game. The Thundering Herd finished a respectable 55th in the nation rushing in 2012, but improved its output across the board while finishing No. 24 in 2013.

Cato’s practice paid dividends. He rushed for 294 yards and six touchdowns in 2013, a jump from 31 and one the season prior. He didn’t run at the expense of his prolific passing ability, either. Cato passed for 3,916 yards and 39 scores in 2013 and shaved two interceptions off his season total from 2012, in two more games.

Now a bona fide dual-threat quarterback, Rakeem Cato is among the top stat-sheet stuffers in college football. And while his individual numbers improved, Cato also produced significant gains where they count most: on the scoreboard.

The Thundering Herd won 10 games and the Conference USA East division. Their appearance in the C-USA Championship Game was the Herd’s first since moving from the MAC in 2005.

Marshall could reach even greater heights in 2014, Cato’s fourth captaining the offense. The Herd are overwhelming preseason favorites to win the Conference USA championship, with some prognosticators going as far as projecting them for an undefeated season. Athlon Sports has Marshall slated for an unblemished regular season. Phil Steele ranks the Herd No. 19 in his preseason poll.

Such success is not unheard of in Huntington, West Virginia.

The Herd were among the first from the non-AQ conferences threatening to burst the BCS bubble. In 1999, Chad Pennington led them to an undefeated season. Marshall had just made the transition after dominating the former Div. I-AA, and its immediate success garnered plenty of national attention.

Pennington received and invitation to New York City and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting that season. He was the second member of the Herd invited to the Heisman ceremony in three years; Randy Moss was a finalist in 1997. But Pennington is the last Marshall player to do so.

Byron Leftwich was sixth place in the 2002 Heisman voting, which not coincidentally was Marshall’s last season with a conference championship.

To regain the glory of Marshall’s peak years, Cato works with its legends, as he told Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer:

“I talk to Chad Pennington a whole bunch. He showed me the path and the right way of how to do things on and off the football field.”

Learning from his predecessors is a common theme for Cato, as detailed in Kramer’s must-read piece. Cato examines film on NFL stars like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, suggesting his dual-threat play could go to the next level in 2014.

But that doesn’t mean the former national leading in passing yards won’t continue to sling the ball around the field. Returning in 2014 is Cato’s top receiving weapon, Tommy Shuler.

Rakeem Cato needs a monster season both individually and from his team to crash the Heisman party. But as his time at Marshall proves, he’ll do whatever is needed to help the Herd win.