HUNTINGTON — Rakeem Cato was Rakeem Cato in Marshall’s first spring scrimmage. It’s that simple.
What was much more notable was what happened at the other end of Cato’s deep sideline throws. Or more correctly, who happened.
This sunny Saturday belonged to Davonte Allen.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior from Belle Glade, Fla., showed he is ready to fulfill all that promise at “X” receiver and erase the frustration of injuries and critical drops in games. In the Thundering Herd’s 96-play officiated scrimmage, he caught five passes for 122 yards.
And they were pretty much highlight-reel snags. Even the one that got away was nice, as he laid out for what would have been a 40-yard reception had the ball not squirted out when he hit the ground.
Cato was impressed with that play as much as any.
“That was tough. [The drop] came at the last second,” Cato said. “I told him, ‘Just keep your head up, you’re going to get it again. [If] you’re one-on-one, I’m going to get it to you again.’ He got his mind right and he kept making plays all day.”
Allen had two catches for 43 yards in the first three plays, including a 22-yarder against double coverage. Later, the tight-roped the sideline for a 28-yard gain and semi-trucked a defender after catching a sideline route to extend the play to 31 yards.
He finished the day with a nice back-shoulder catch, a 19-yarder from otherwise struggling reserve quarterback Gunnar Holcombe.
After a tremendous practice Thursday, Allen put together several things he was lacking in previous years: providing a physical presence, running crisp routes, finishing them and looking the ball into his hands.
As Marshall coach Doc Holliday reminded, Allen is reaping the benefits of being fully healthy for one of the few times in his MU career.
“This is the first time he’s had a spring and a whole winter where he’s had the opportunity to come out and compete,” Holliday said. “It shows. I thought he made great improvement. All of [the receivers] had a great practice Thursday and it carried into today’s practice.
“It was good to see because we haven’t had that kind of play from our outside receivers in … going on our second year.”
Holliday liked seeing Cato winging the ball around the gridiron as well as usual, if not better. The senior from Miami went 15 of 23 for 324 yards and two touchdowns, plus he high-stepped 7 yards for another score. And he did all that without favorite target Tommy Shuler, who had a family obligation back home in Miami.
In this mix-and-match scrimmage, 12 different players caught passes from at least one of the quarterbacks.
There are a few qualifiers, however. Defensive tackle James Rouse, linebacker Even McKelvey and cornerback Darryl Roberts were held out as “healthy scratches,” the remaining defensive linemen and linebackers were rotated liberally and there were no nickel formations used. Blitzing was nonexistent, as linemen accounted for all six “sacks.”
On the warmest day of MU’s spring, some defenders wore down a bit.
“They gave me my fair share of reps, so I really shouldn’t be complaining,” said linebacker D.J. Hunter. “But I was a bit winded; I need to get in a little better shape.”
Demetrius Evans, working at inside and outside receive positions, ended the first possession with a 34-yard touchdown reception. Deandre Reaves scored from 24 yards as Cato pulled his best magic of the day — he pump-faked to Reaves on a slant, then hit the junior after he blew past a committed defender.
Steward Butler had two short touchdowns, while Remi Watson and Kevin Rodriguez scored from 12 yards out. The Herd scored a defensive touchdown when Donaldven Manning snagged a Holcombe pass and jogged the 15 yards into the end zone.
The defense didn’t struggle all the time, though. It intercepted three passes — two from third-stringer Cole Garvin — and recovered a fumble. It held the offense to 5.7 yards per play, compared to the 6.4 Cato and company averaged over the 14 games of 2013.
But when the Herd scrimmages again on Friday, look for defensive coordinator Chuck Heater to let his men loose.
“Chuck’s looking at a few things on defense,” Holliday said. “Any time No. 12’s in there, he makes great decisions and he can throw it. He can make a lot of people look bad.”
BRIEFLY: The injured Ra’Shawde Myers also watched the scrimmage. With him and Rouse out, all the D-linemen played a lot, with Malcolm Strong even starting at left tackle. Ricardo Williams, the junior transfer from Miami, played inside. … Walk-on wide receiver Jack Gammon has left the program. ... Holcombe had a grim day, completing just 4 of 17 passes for 36 yards and that pick-six. Garvin went 7 of 12 for 64 yards, but threw two picks. One came in the end zone, courtesy of A.J. Leggett. … A bad omen? Justin Haig and Nick Smith came out for four field-goal attempts from 37 to 43 yards. Haig missed three and Smith split his tries.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.