Rakeem Cato leads the nation in passing yards and completions.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's official: Rakeem Cato joined the list of major-award-winning Marshall quarterbacks in a big way, and Kevin Grooms is already etching his name onto the select list of Thundering Herd running backs.Cato was named Wednesday as Conference USA's Most Valuable Player as selected by the league's 12 head coaches. The sophomore from Miami is the first underclassman to win the award, which was instituted as an overall honor in 2008. (The league has always honored separate offensive and defensive players of the year.)Grooms, a Hollywood, Fla., native, was named the league's Freshman of the Year, the first Marshall player to win that honor in any league since Randy Moss did it in the Southern Conference in 1996.Cato was honored for his role in reviving Marshall's reputation as an offensive juggernaut, though the Herd's pitfalls on defense and special teams led to a disappointing 5-7 season. Cato leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards (4,201) and completions (406), is tied for second with 37 touchdown passes and is fifth in total offense (4,232 yards) and completion percentage (69.5).As a team, the Herd is second in third-down conversion rate (54.59 percent) and sixth in total offense (534.25 yards per game).Cato joins position coach Tony Petersen, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich as Herd passers to top 4,000 yards in a season. Not coincidentally, those are four of Marshall's 13 players to capture major conference awards. In the Southern Conference, Petersen (1987), Michael Payton (1991, 1992), Chris Parker (1993, 1995) and Todd Donnan won offensive player of the year honors, while Capital High graduate William King (1993) was a defensive winner. Petersen, Payton (twice) and Donnan also won all-sports athlete of the year honors.In the Mid-American Conference, Moss (1997), Pennington (1999) and Leftwich (2001-02) won the Vern Smith Award as league MVP. They also won the offensive player of the year awards, while Max Yates (2001) and Johnathan Goddard (2004) won on defense. In C-USA, Albert McClellan won the media vote in 2006 and Vinny Curry won in 2011.
After throwing for 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman, Cato became the centerpiece of Marshall's retooled, high-pressure offense, one that often snaps the ball as quickly as the officials spot it. He directed it with maestro-like efficiency at times, racking up nine 300-passing yard games and three over 400 yards.Cato is Marshall's second athlete to be named C-USA's top player at his sport. Goalkeeper Daniel Withrow shared the honor in soccer.Grooms, who joined the Herd program after sitting out 2011 as a nonqualifier, rushed for 737 yards and eight touchdowns, including scoring runs of 69, 64 and 45 yards. He also caught eight passes for 50 yards and another score.Marshall never won the freshman award in the MAC. Other than Moss, freshman winning in the Southern Conference era were running back Ron Lear (1979), kicker Barry Childers (1980), running back Ron Darby (1986), kicker Dewey Klein (1988), defensive back Roger Johnson (1991), defensive back Alandus Sims (1992) and Pennington (1995).In other C-USA awards, Southern Methodist running back Zach Line was named the offensive player of the year, an award separated from the MVP. Line topped 1,000 rushing yards for the third straight year and has 1,207 entering the Hawaii Bowl.Central Florida took the defensive honor with safety Kemal Ishmael and the special teams honor with kick returner Quincy McDuffie. McDuffie became the 17th player to return two kickoffs for touchdown in the same game, victimizing Marshall in late October.Tulsa's Bill Blankenship was named C-USA coach of the year after leading the Golden Hurricane to the league championship. He is 14-2 in conference play in his two seasons as a head coach.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.