As Suss reported earlier, the Toledo Rockets were picked to win the MAC Championship in the preseason media poll. Barely. Northern Illinois was nipping at their heels in both the polls for the title and the MAC West. It’s hard to argue with that result: while Miami ran the table, the Rockets have enough returning starters to give you the vapors (17), and that includes First Team All-American punt returner (and he’s a pretty nifty receiver, too) Eric Page, and both "starting quarterbacks", Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens. Not returning: Kevin Kowalski (now of the Dallas Cowboys) and Isaiah Ballard (now of the Bancroft Street Bullies).
The poll always coincides with MAC Media Day up in Detroit, so I took a trip up to Ford Field and talked with coach Tim Beckman for my radio gig, which is lovingly transcribed for you below. Warning: Beyond this jump lies the Swamp of Coachspeak.
Coach: Well, a little bit. I mean, it's all about postseason, not preseason. I'm sure our players will be excited and proud of the fact, but they realize we need to be here December 2nd for it all to become reality.
Me: It is validation for what you've been doing at the Glass Bowl, last year you were picked 4th and come out 7-1 in conference play, so they turn around and say you're the real deal?
Coach: Yeah, well, we've got a lot of guys back, and one good thing about it is the plan on building the program is working. But it still comes down to fulfilling those expectations. The expectation is to be here, so we've gotta make sure the Rockets can do what they need to be here.
Me: One of the big names that is coming back is Eric Page, the breakout receiver and punt returner. And I was telling him that now we've got the pieces on the field, with the transfer from Illinois and Bernard Reedy, that opens the field up for a potent passing game.
Coach: Eric has done a real outstanding job, not just as a player, but as a leader on this football team. He's a quiet guy, and he knows how to push players around him to make them better. We do have a great player in him, and we've got to make sure we can get him the football. Also, having some players around, Kenny Stafford, Julian Bellinger, James Green... we've got some names that will step their game up and perform at a consistent level.
Me: You've been the coach there for three years, and I think this is the 3rd straight year we're saying "Who's the starting QB? Dunno."
Coach: Same thing, same thing. We'll probably name that thing the Wednesday before the New Hampshire game. But the greatest thing is that we've got great competition, we've got great players at that position. All very capable of winning football games in the Mid-American Conference or outside. We're excited about those challenges.
Me: Even at the running back position, you've got Adonis Thomas who was absolutely killing it out there, David Fluellen who'll be stepping up as a sophomore, Morgan Williams. . It seems like all of the pieces are falling into place. You've got a strong O-line, a strong running corps, you've got strong quarterbacks, and strong receivers.
Coach: That's what building a program is about. Making sure you've got enough guys that can compete, and when competition comes about, the team gets better.
Me: And on the other side of the ball, you've got guys like the 6-year Desmond Marrow, but for the first time in ten years, we're looking at a really solid defensive line.
Coach: We've got the size, that's the first thing. When I first got here, there just wasn't the size, especially on the inside players. And now we do, we've got 4 guys that are big guys. We've been able to take Malcolm Riley and move him to DE, because we have some depth at those positions.
Me: You've been talking about recruiting, that was one of your strengths coming in, and now the Rockets the past two years have had some of the top recruiting classes in the MAC, and now it's time to see it on the field.
Coach: It's great to be in Rivals and Scout, but now it's time to play it on the field.
Me: A lot of fans looking at that September 10th game at Ohio State, saying "You know, we got Michigan in a down year, maaaaaaybe we can go into the Horseshoe?"
Coach: Well it's a great opportunity for us. Yes, they won't have 5 of their starters, but it's Ohio State. They'll be ranked in the Top 10. We've been able to beat teams that have the same capabilities as Ohio State, but it'll be a challenge. We need to take care of what we need to take care of, and not worry about who we're playing against.
Me: There were some fist bumps around the town when you signed that contract extension.
Coach: I'm an Ohio guy, really Northeast Ohio and Cleveland, but... why not? With the commitment at UT with Lloyd Jacobs and Mike O'Brien, I'm home. My family gets to see every one of the football games I coach in. It's an honor, not just for Tim Beckman, not just for my family, but for my coaching staff, because they've made the same commitment.