Sometimes, you need to take a step back to move forward. Despite having some incredibly talented seniors in 2013, a tough non-conference slate and some nagging midseason injuries led to the Toledo Rockets sliding back to 7-5, their worst record since 2009. Gone are the likes of Terrance Owens, Bernard Reedy, David Fluellen and Jayrone Elliott. But even with those loses Toledo is loaded—16 starters are back—and 2014 could be the year the Rockets reclaim their crown as the best in the MAC.
The injury bug hurt the Rockets with key players David Fluellen and Terrance Owens missing big games in 2013. Owens, even when healthy, wasn't his 2011 self, and Fluellen struggled with back and ankle injuries down the stretch that limited his playing time.
Starting the year off with back-to-back SEC losses put the Rockets in an early hole, but still the team, despite injuries, managed to get itself into the three-way race for the West. Then in November things got tricky. The Rockets, sitting at 6-3 (4-1 MAC) were very much in the hunt for a trip to detroit. But when Buffalo came to town and pushed the Rockets' defense to the brink it was a sign of things to come. The following week Toledo lost, at home, to NIU 35-17. Defeated, with no shot of going to Detroit, Toledo came out flat on the road in the season finale in Akron and lost 31-29.
Despite having a 7-5 record, Toledo was inexplicably left at home in favor of a 6-6 Ohio team, and the Rockets' season was over, leaving a bad mouth in the taste of many, including head coach Matt Campbell.
Toledo may have lost its longtime starting quarterback (Owens), one of its best running backs of all time (Fluellen), one of the conference's best offensive lineman in Zac Kerin, and a dynamic multi purpose weapon to graduation (Reedy), but the Rockets aren't depleted on offense. Campbell has built up depth over the past four years, and this season is where that depth could really give them an advantage.
It all starts up front where four starting lineman are back, including Greg Mancz, who may just be the best the MAC has to offer. Mancz brings back 38 career starts. His fellow linemates Josh Hendershot and Jeff Myers both bring 25 career starts and Robert Lisowski and Chase Nelson have some experience as well. This line was among the most productive in 2013, and while losing Kerin is nothing to ignore, the Rockets will be fine up front again.
The loss of Fluellen is negated thanks to the return of sophomore backs Kareem Hunt and Damion Jones-Moore who flashed signs of brilliance filling inf or the injured Fluellen last season. Hunt, a bigger back at 5 foot 11, 215 pounds, put up 866 yards, 6.3 yards per carry and six touchdowns, mostly in the last six games. During that final stretch he topped 100 yards five times in just two starts. Jones-Moore is a change of pace back, and the perfect compliment to Hunt's workhorse style. His 7.2 yards per carry average and five touchdowns were a valued asset to one fo the best rushing attacks in the MAC.
Behind the strong Rockets' offensive line those two, plus a group of experienced backups, should help Toledo keep pace with the 240 yards per game they put up on the ground in 2013.
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On the edge Toledo did lose its top receiver from 2013 in Reedy. The former All-MAC slot was invaluable to the team, but Campbell has been doing wonders on the recruiting trail for sometime, and the Rockets appear to be stacked at wideout for the 2014 season as well.
Alonzo Russell, a freakishly athletic junior, caught 59 passes for 728 yards and six touchdowns in 2013; including a Sportscenter Top Ten worthy one-handed catch vs. CMU for a touchdown. Russell is the leader of this receiving corps, and has the potential to be among the best at his position in the MAC, but what about the other ones?
Senior Dwight Macon caught 18 passes last season and senior Justin Olack caught 16. Behind those two, there's not much production coming back, but plenty of potential. Two recruits could fight their way onto the field during the season; look for Zach Yousey and Darryl Richards to get snaps early in their collegiate careers. Junior Alex Zmolik will start at tight end. He was more of an extra lineman last season for the Rockets, as he was only was targeted ten times during the whole season. Brian Blackburn, a three star tight end recruit could easily get some early playing time. With his 6-foot-6, 225 pound frame Blackburn could be a weapon in the redzone.
The biggest question surrounding Toledo's offense is who will take over for Owens. Currently, it's a three-way race between sophomore Logan Woodside, redshirt freshman Michael Jullian (both 3 star quarterbacks from the Rockets' 2013 class) and Alabama junior transfer Phillip Ely. The outsider's perspective is that it's really between Woodside and Ely, with Ely possibly holding a narrow advantage, but Campbell wasn't giving away much on the race at MAC Media Day.
"It's really fun to watch all three guys go, and my job was to hand my football team to those guys and have their leadership take over," Campbell told Hustle Belt.
With just a few weeks to go before the season opener vs. New Hampshire, don't be surprised if this is still an ongoing battle through the first few weeks of the season.
Jayrone Elliott will be missed on defense, obviously. Elliott led the team in sacks with nine and gave the rockets one of the best pass rushes in the MAC. Christian Smith's 31.5 tackles will be missed up front as well, but he is still with the team as a graduate assistant. But like the offense, the defense future is bright thanks to depth and experience, and it also starts up front.
In 2013 Treyvon Hester had one of the best freshman seasons a MAC player has had in a long time. Hester had 27.5 tackles, 7.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Elijah Jones hasn't played a collegiate football game since 2012 after finding out he had a blood clot, this story does have fairy tail ending, as he will be back for his senior season for the Rockets. In 2012 Jones had 23.5 tackles and 1.5 sacks; he could be a surprise for the Rockets this year. Don't expect the pass rush to take any sort of major hit this fall.
Junior Sylvestre is the leader of this defense, and just may be the best player in the MAC. A tackling machine, the linebacker tallied 91 last season, 9.5 for loss, and five sacks. Sylvestre's great season last year has his name bouncing around award lists that include the Rotary Lombardi watch list. Juniors Chase Murdock and Trent Voss are also coming back this season and combined for 125.5 tackles and five sacks. Senior Ray Bush will also come in and help out at times; Bush totaled 27 tackles 2.5 for lost. Depth, experience and aggressiveness highlight the Rockets' linebacker corps.
If you had to pick one weak spot on this defense it'd be the secondary now that returning starting cornerback Chetham Norrils could be out for the season. That leaves Toledo with just two returning starters in this unit. Cameron Cole is the lone returning corner now, and a lot of pressure will be on his shoulders this fall with Norrils out. Junior free safety Chaz Whittaker (38 tackles) is the other starter coming back in the secondary. He'll likely be complemented by sophomore free safety DeJuan Rogers who played in 12 games in 2013, totalling 19.5 tackles.
Toledo was an aggressive attacking defense in 2013, and with so much talent bakc, don't expect that to change this fall.
Jeremiah Detmer could be the best kicker is the nation. Detmer chipped in 19-20 field goals while also going 44-45 on PATs in 2013. He's steady as a rock, having connected on more than 87 percent of his field goals in his career.
Punting may be an issue for the Rockets as Vince Penza graduated and it's not clear who will fill in for him at this time. The return game could also be a question mark as Reedy handled both punts and kicks for Toledo. D.J Larkins has experience returning kicks; Corey Jones has returned some punts. But neither of these two spots should be considered filled.
|Sat., Aug. 30||vs New Hampshite||7 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Sat., Sep. 6||vs Missouri||Noon||ABC/ESPN2|
|Fri., Sep. 12||at Cincinnati||7 p.m.||ESPNU|
|Sat., Sep 20||vs. Ball State||TBA||TBA|
|Sat., Sep 27||vs. CMU||TBA||TBA|
|Sat., Oct 4||at WMU||7 p.m.||TBA|
|Sa.t, Oct. 11||at Iowa State||3:30 p.m.||Mediacom Cable|
|Sat., Oct. 25||vs. UMass||2 p.m.||TBA|
|Tues., Nov. 4||at Kent State||8 p.m.||ESPN2/ESPNU|
|Tues., Nov. 11||at NIU||8 p.m.||ESPN2/ESPNU|
|Wed., Nov. 19||vs. BGSU||8 p.m.||ESPN2/ESPNU|
|Fri., Nov. 28||at EMU||TBA||ESPNU/ESPN3|
The Rockets have a hard out of conference schedule including a game at home vs. Missouri and games away at Cincinnati, and at Iowa State. Then of course they have to head to NIU near the end of the year, but get BGSU at home two weeks before the MAC Championship game.
The media predicted Toledo and BGSU to win their divisions, and with the exception of NIU, the Rockets have all of their toughest conference foes at home this season. It's not hard to see Toledo splitting its non-conference slate and winning as many as six or seven conference games. That would be enough to ensure the Rockets make it back to a bowl game, regardless of whether or not they win the MAC. But considering this team may be the most equipped title contender Toledo has had since it last won the MAC in 2004, anything less may be a disappointment.