HUNTINGTON — There were a lot of sights and sounds for the nice crowd of 9,163 at Marshall’s Green-White spring football game Saturday.
There was the opening pass — from former MU great Chad Pennington to probable NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss. (“That was cool,” said one Thundering Herd fan.) Pennington and Byron Leftwich, the two former Herd quarterbacking legends, served as honorary coaches, perhaps with a little side bet. (“I’ll keep that between me and him,” Leftwich smiled.)
The fans, bathed in sunshine, saw Leftwich throw to Cris Crocker. Chris Massey was in the house.
And then there was the real action. Steward Butler broke loose. Eric Frohnapfel caught one and advanced it to the 7-yard line. Redshirt freshman kicker Nick Smith seemed to be giving incumbent Justin Haig a run for his money. Justin Hunt and Gunnar Holcombe were hooking up for touchdowns.
Interesting, all of it.
But let’s face it, Marshall’s 2014 football team is Rakeem Cato. And vice versa.
On Saturday, the senior quarterback didn’t look particularly sharp. He finished the day 3 for 11 passing for 102 yards. He did throw the one to Frohnapfel. He wore a red no-contract jersey and made an early exit. After 20 snaps, he was finished.
Here’s the deal, though: All are expecting fireworks from Cato and the Herd this season. All.
“We’re looking for something big this year,” Leftwich said. “We have a good football team. Now it’s time to take it to the next level.”
That will be on No. 12, that product of Miami. The one that’s been a given this spring because of his past production.
“He’s continued to grow,” said coach Doc Holliday. “He has a better understanding of the offense. He’ll come back in the summer a better quarterback.”
He’s pretty good now, of course. And if you want two judges to back that up, well, look no further than Pennington and Leftwich. Both see the talent.
“I can see his brain,” Leftwich said. “His decision making is great. It’s exceptional. And that’s the hard part.”
“He’s competitive,” Pennington chimed in. “His standard is high. His challenge is to not try to live up to other people’s expectations. Just do what you need to help your team.”
Pennington made a living doing that. Can Cato eventually do so, despite his lack of height?
“He’s 6-1,” the 6-foot-5 Leftwich said. “The sheet may say 6-3, but he’s 6-1. But those days [when nice height was mandatory in the NFL] are over. ... If you’re a good football player they allow you to be a good football player.”
Cato said, despite his 3-for-11 day, he has continued to improve. The spring, he claims, was not a waste of time.
“I got a lot [out of it],” he said. “I became more of a leader, a more vocal leader. I talked to the young guys and helped them with their routes. I helped the running backs with their protections. I just tried to come out and give my best effort at all time because I knew all eyes were on me. … I tried to set the standards high.”
By the way, he likes his backups, Holcombe and true freshman Cole Garvin. The latter is particularly impressive for his age, although there were mistakes at the end of Saturday’s action.
“Those guys are willing to learn,” Cato said. “They came out here and put major efforts in. Nobody knows how many hours they put in off the field. They’re in the film room all day. They’re wanting to get better. They listen to me. They listen to Coach [Bill] Legg. They give 100-percent effort. That’s all you can ask for. They’re getting better every day.”
And if Cato does so, there’s no reason Marshall can’t have a special 2014.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.