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Can Cato cope with prosperity?

HUNTINGTON - The fourth edition of Camp Doc is upon us, with the first whistle blowing at 9:45 a.m. or thereabouts. Today is the first of four days of split-squad practices at Marshall's Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

And today is the first day to set aside the sudden burst of anticipation surrounding the Thundering Herd. No doubt you've seen it - the Herd is picked second in the East Division of the reshuffled Conference USA by the coaches, higher by some educated guessers.

In some cases, much higher.

(Hey, Conference USA had a coaches' poll? What a freakin' novel idea!)

Today, it's time for this Marshall team to get to work. In a big way - remember, this team is coming off that 5-7 stinker of 2012, which started by yielding 69 points and ended by giving up 65.

The most obvious issue is the defense, which yielded a stunning 517 points, 484 in regulation and 422 after deducting nine (!) non-offensive touchdowns. That's still 35 per four-quarter game, and that still hurts.

Some defensive issues carrying over from spring drills: Do Alex Bazzie and Jeremiah Taylor make the big step up at defensive end? Is Taj "Big Bird" Letman the man at safety alongside D.J. Hunter? Does Kent Turene overcome his abbreviated spring and star at linebacker? Is linebacker Stefan Houston all that?  

And can Rakeem Cato keep from getting the "big head"?

Oh, wait. That last item was offense. As in Marshall's NASCAR-like offense, the one that led the nation in snaps per game (90) and had defensive coordinators chugging Maalox.

In the optimistic month of August, it seems to be a lock that Cato & Co. will lather, rinse and repeat all those mind-blowing numbers, such as 534 total yards and 41 points per game.

And after Cato's Most Valuable Player award in Conference USA last season, the pats on the back have gotten more frequent. The Manning Award watch list is the latest, following similar listings by the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Davey O'Brien awards.

Any magazine or website worth reading places Cato on the first-team all-conference. C-USA coaches voted him the preseason offensive player of the year, perhaps unanimously.

So what is there to be worried about on that side of the ball? Steward Butler, Kevin Grooms and Remi Watson return to run wild, the line is deeper and more experienced than we've seen in years, the tight end situation is solid and the Cato-to-Tommy Shuler combination is nearly unstoppable.

That, and receiver Devon Smith may be the most frightening sub-150 pound player in football. Man, can he scoot!

Shoot, you've got to run 90 plays a game just to get everyone the ball. Theoretically, this could be the 1987, 1996, 1999 and 2002 Herd offenses rolled into one.

That not a sarcastic line, either; this offense could be freaky good. But there are issues to address before the Herd's Aug. 31 opener at home against "Little Miami" of Ohio.

Most visible will be the "X" and "Y" spots. At spring's end, Demetrius Evans was leading Penn State transfer Shawney Kersey and Davonte Allen at "X," with Kersey the most intriguing case. He spent all spring shaking off cornerbacks, only to drop half the balls sent his way.

Craig Wilkins led at "Y" and looked mighty good at that, but I'm braced for anything there.

That leaves the ultimate issue, that of Cato's progression. Herd fans hope that doesn't turn into a regression.

As a junior, the Miami (not Ohio) native is continuing the transition from raw rookie to young gun to veteran signal-caller. With his 2012 MVP trophy in hand, he has joined the almost-continuous line of successful Herd quarterbacks.

But can he handle all this success?

He has shown some positive signs. For instance, he hasn't caused unnecessary Twitter ruckuses, unlike ol' Johnny Manziel down at Texas A&M. (Hey, Johnny Footy: Attending a fraternity party at the University of Texas is a bad, bad idea. Good thing you were ushered out before you passed out.)

On the field, Cato has plenty of room for improvement. Of immediate concern is cutting down major mistakes, such as the two straight "pick-6s" he threw in the second quarter at Purdue. By my count, his turnovers directly led to 56 points - three interception returns and a fumble return straight to the end zone, plus other miscues followed by opposing TDs.   

I consider offensive coordinator Bill Legg's new role as quarterbacks coach a positive development. For a crusty ol' 1970s lineman from Poca, Legg has become quite the offensive mind, and he may relate to Cato better than did Tony Petersen, now Skip Holtz's coordinator at Louisiana Tech.

If Legg can keep Cato grounded and focused through the preseason hype, I think Marshall fans will like the result. The journey begins today.

Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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