During his prep days, Florida native Mark Cato earned a reputation for being a skilled quarterback, hard-nosed leader and big-time winner.
Gainesville High School went 25-3 in his two years as a starter and finished as the 2012 FHSAA Class 6A runner-up when he was a senior. In his final season, he passed for 30 touchdowns and garnered all-state honors for a talented team that sent players to Vanderbilt, Florida and Louisville.
Despite his success, Cato was largely overlooked by college coaches. Florida, Florida Atlantic and UCF invited him to be a preferred walk-on. He also heard from Stetson, which was bringing back football, and NCAA Division II Nebraska-Kearney.
Then he found the perfect fit with a startup Division II program at Florida Tech.
That’s what the 6-2, 205-pound Cato has done for a Gulf South Conference program now in its fourth season of football. Earlier this season the third-year starter and two-time team captain helped 16th-ranked Florida Tech crack the Division II Top 25 rankings for the first time. Last week, Cato passed for 357 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers beat FCS Presbyterian, 28-7.
On Saturday, Florida Tech (4-0, 2-0 GSC) plays at first-year program West Florida (2-2, 0-1) in ASN’s Division II Game of the Week. Cato enters the game as the GSC leader in multiple categories, including pass efficiency rating (155.5). The redshirt junior is second in the league in total offense (276.5 yards per game), passing yards (250.8 ypg) and passing TDs (eight) and has rushed for three scores.
With Cato at the controls, the experienced Panthers are averaging 37.8 points per game and in the top 20 nationally in total offense (513.5 ypg), passing (295.5 ypg) and rushing (218 ypg).
“Mark [Cato] is a guy who can do it all,” Florida Tech coach Steve Englehart said. “He is a leader, directs the offense, takes care of the football and gets first downs on third down. It’s not an easy thing to start up a program, but Mark [Cato] has definitely made it easier.”
Cato won the starting job after redshirting as a freshman in 2013, when the Panthers posted a 5-7 mark in their first season. The following fall he made the USA College Football Freshman All-America Team and was the GSC Offensive Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference. He passed for 2,926 yards and 32 TDs, the seventh-most in the nation, for a 6-5 team. (Three of those losses were to nationally ranked teams, including FCS school Bethune-Cookman, by three points or fewer.)
That season, Cato had four games with at least four TD passes and a streak of 159 consecutive throws without an interception. He accounted for six TDs in his collegiate debut at Stetson and passed for the go-ahead score late in a win over No. 12 Tarleton State at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“I knew that he was skilled and won in high school, but it was amazing to see the charisma he brought as a true freshman while on the scout team,” Englehart said. “When he was a redshirt freshman, something just told me gut-wise we had to go with him, and when I did, our whole team got motivated even more.”
Last season, Florida Tech went 7-4 as Cato battled elbow and foot injuries but still passed for 19 TDs and rushed for seven scores in 10 games. After dislocating his non-throwing (left) elbow in a season-opening loss to Newberry, Cato sat out a loss at Southeastern Louisiana. He returned to account for three TDs in a win over Warner and passed for 353 yards and five scores in a loss at North Alabama.
The Panthers followed with six consecutive wins, highlighted by an upset of top-ranked West Georgia as Cato accounted for three TDs but missed the playoffs after losing to Valdosta State in the regular season finale.
“Mark has been a warrior,” Englehart said. “Last year, he was hurt all season. One of the reasons we lost to Newberry was because he dislocated his elbow. He also had a foot sprain and wore a walking boot all day every day then took it off to put on his cleats for practice and games. He’s a tough kid.”
Cato, who has business aspirations for life after football, credits his dad for developing that toughness.
“I’d get home from practice, and my dad would throw with me in the backyard,” Cato said. “The 30-minute after-practice practices were the lucky days. I loved throwing the ball around with him since I was a little kid. He was tough on me, but he helped me become the best I could be.”
With 29 players returning for their senior season, Cato expected this to be a big year for the Panthers. So far, it has been as they’re nationally ranked, in part because of a once-lightly recruited quarterback.
“You never know, I could have walked on at Florida and had a chance to play,” Cato said. “Sometimes you just have to make a decision, and I couldn’t be happier with mine. I love my coaches and teammates, and I’m playing football in an awesome place.”