NOT MUCH compares to the kickoff of the college football season. Consider: By this time next week, the first game of the season for West Virginia and Marshall will be in the books.The Frontyard Brawl is in the offing. It's almost here. WVU fans are excited about their team's first foray into the Big 12. Marshall fans are excited to see the next step in the Doc Holliday era.Both seasons start at noon Saturday in Morgantown. Marshall cornerback Derrick Thomas, a Penn State transfer, can't wait for the visit to Touchdown City."We're excited," he said. "We're very excited. Everybody on the team is excited. That's all we talk about."
That's all both teams will talk about this week.Holliday will be asked about his WVU roots. In addition, he'll be asked about the Mountaineers he recruited as part of Bill Stewart's staff.Exactly how many are still on WVU's team?"Too many of them," Holliday said with a smile. "Unfortunately, a few pretty good ones - Geno [Smith], Stedman [Bailey] and Jorge Wright. Those are the main three that are still there."There will be the angle of familiarity. Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, a product of Miami [Fla.] Central, chimed in early."I know Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, Ivan McCartney and a couple others [from Miramar High in Miami]," he said. "One of my former offensive linemen in high school, Marquis Lucas, plays [reserve] right guard. I know a couple guys. A rival of ours, Eric Kinsey [of Miami Northwestern], plays defensive end."There will be the angle of the dying series, which WVU leads 11-0 and is favored to extend to 12-0. It became a political football of sorts, first for ex-MU coach Bob Pruett, then Sen. Joe Manchin and then WVU athletic director Oliver Luck.But ultimately the focus will fall to the players.Most in the Mountain State know what to expect from some of the leading characters. WVU quarterback Smith is steady and effective. Ditto receiver Bailey. WVU receiver Tavon Austin is lethal. MU receiver Aaron Dobson is a beast.But the wild card in the game is unquestionably Cato, a true sophomore who started nine games last year. As a true freshman, he completed 59.9 percent of his passes last season and threw for 2,059 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.He made a mark. But this is Cato's opportunity to make a lasting mark.
"He's matured," Holliday said of his QB. "He's got a season under his belt. Physically, he's a lot stronger. Mentally, he's more confident. And he has a better understanding of the offense. He's a more mature quarterback and, therefore, a better quarterback at this point."Cato, 6-foot, has bulked up to 182 pounds."I gained a couple of pounds over the summer," said the MU quarterback. "I'm just trying to get this thing going. I wanted to work on my body size and getting in better shape. I want to be able to take hits and run the ball a little more."If you're trying to compare Cato to Smith, it's tough. The latter played sparingly as a freshman, hitting 32 of 49 passes (65.3 percent) for 309 yards. (There was that performance against Marshall, though.) Then as a sophomore and, especially, last season, Smith exploded onto the college football scene. As a junior, Smith passed for 4,385 yards, connected on 65.8 percent of his passes and put himself squarely in this season's Heisman Trophy race. He threw for 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last season.Cato, however, is talented, and he's clearly Marshall's No. 1 QB. In the ongoing camp, there was absolutely no quarterback controversy. Zero. For once."I take it as a positive, but I still go out and work hard every day," Cato said. "I don't take it easy. I still compete with [Blake] Frohnapfel and Gunnar [Holcombe]. They push me hard and I make sure to push them hard."
He said to expect one twist to this Marshall team."Speed," said the QB. "We've got a lot of speed. Everyone can run, from the quarterback and running back to the offensive line and wideouts to the secondary and linebackers. We have a lot of speed. I feel we can play with anybody in the country. Personnel isn't an issue with us."We'll see on Saturday. We'll see if No. 11 WVU can get off to a fast start. We'll see if Cato can keep the game close or spur an upset.What we know for certain, though, is it's game week. And many throughout the state feel the same way as Marshall's QB."We," Cato said, "are very excited."Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, email@example.com
or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.