John Donovan didn’t find many familiar faces when UW’s first-year offensive coordinator arrived in Washington this winter.
And that was to be expected, considering that Donovan had never worked anywhere west of Nashville, Tennessee. It was in Nashville that Donovan — then Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator — met a graduate assistant named Derham Cato in 2011. The two shared a staff for three seasons, posting program records for points per game (30.1) and total yards (4,936) in 2012.
Perhaps that’s why, nearly eight years later, Donovan placed his faith in a familiar face.
“Coach Donovan had a huge impact on the decision (of who would be UW’s tight ends coach), who he was comfortable with, and he told (UW head coach Jimmy) Lake he’d be comfortable with me,” said Cato, previously an offensive analyst at UW, during a teleconference with local media Wednesday. “That’s when coach Lake came into the office and we talked about it and coach Lake actually gave me an opportunity to interview, and I did that day. It all worked out and fell into place.
“But it’s kind of crazy. Me and coach Donovan were just laughing about how small of a world it is. We’re both east-coast guys and worked together down in the south in Nashville. Next thing you know, eight or nine years later, we end up in the Pacific Northwest together, in Seattle. So it’s pretty cool how it all worked out.”
Time will tell, however, how this arrangement works out for Washington. After all, Cato hasn’t operated as an on-field coach since 2015, when he served for a single season as the offensive coordinator at Davidson. It’s then that his predecessor at that position, Bush Hamdan, suggested he follow him to UW. For the last four seasons, Cato has operated behind the scenes, in virtual anonymity.
Though, in his own way, he’s also helped the Huskies win.
“When I came out here, my major responsibilities were opponent scouting — scouting out one or two weeks in advance during the season and then assisting with the game plan from a scheme standpoint with the coaches in different areas,” Cato explained. “Then in the offseason it was just conducting a bunch of studies on other teams where we felt their schemes could possibly fit ours, as well as a bunch of self-scout stuff — looking for tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
“I really enjoyed the role. Obviously you’re not allowed to coach or be on the field at all, so it’s really a time to gear down and it’s all ball 24/7. I feel like I’ve really grown a lot in the previous four years, almost more than I did in my first six years in the profession when you were really dialed in on recruiting and everything as well. So it was an awesome experience.”
Still, Cato called the decision to pursue UW’s tight ends coach opening a “no-brainer.” He missed the ability to coach, recruit and develop relationships on the field.
And he also relished the opportunity to scale another rung on the coaching ladder.
“I love this game,” he said. “It’s given a lot to me throughout my life, and I feel like I’ve kind of come from nothing within football. I’m not from a football family. I didn’t grow up in it. When I started playing, I was the first person in my family to really play it. It’s given me a lot, and I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder within this profession, just trying to make it to that next level and climb the ladder so to speak.
“I think coach Lake appreciated that and appreciated how much I love this game and the passion I’m going to bring from a recruiting perspective as well as developing the guys on the roster.”
Despite the absence of departed All-Pac-12 performer Hunter Bryant, Cato has plenty left to develop nonetheless. The group is led by 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior Cade Otton — who has registered 45 receptions, 518 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his first two seasons in Seattle. On Wednesday, Cato called Otton “a workhorse” and “everything you want in a player.”
But, besides Otton, Cato has some interesting options at tight end. He said that senior Jacob Kizer — who missed five games last season with a back injury — “has been awesome this offseason, just been kicking butt in the workouts and done a great job.” Likewise, the potential of redshirt sophomore Devin Culp — who’s still searching for his first career catch — “is really limitless. (With) his focus and his determination, I think he really realizes this is a chance for him to take his game to the next level.” True freshmen Mark Redman and Mason West will have opportunities to earn playing time as well.
After all, Donovan’s prostyle offense plans to utilize its tight ends.
“They’re going to be asked to handle blocking at the point of attack in the run game, do a lot of different things in the pass game, stretch the field vertically, be involved in the drop-back and quick (passing) game,” Cato said. “So the biggest thing we talk about with our guys is that we put a lot on their plate and we expect them to be able to execute it.
“I do think it’s a great offense for this position, just from the perspective of how many guys are on the field, what we ask them to do on the field and really building that complete resume for those guys.”
Cato’s coaching resume is still incomplete in his own right. The former assistant at Dartmouth (his alma mater), Vanderbilt and Davidson still has to prove he can coach and recruit on a Pac-12 level. He has to prove that Donovan’s faith was warranted; that he was always much more than a familiar face.
But like Cato said, he came from nothing in football. He didn’t ride an elevator to the top of the coaching ladder. He earned every opportunity. And now it’s time to make his mark.