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2017 Hustle Belt Football Season Preview: Toledo Rockets

Can Jason Candle and company live up to expectations

Marmot Boca Raton Bowl - Temple v Toledo Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

2016 was a good year for the Toledo Rockets. They won 9 games and quite a few players received national attention. 3 players were drafted, and several others signed NFL contracts. It could have been a little better. 3 of their losses, including in the bowl game, were extremely close.

As good as 2016 was, many are predicting 2017 to be even better. Jason Candle is a young coach that people expect big things from, myself included. Logan Woodside returns to lead the offense, and he led the country in touchdown passes last season. There are plenty of other weapons on offense that returns, along with some key pieces on the defense. The expectations are so high, I believe it’s conference title or bust for this team.


Rockets on Offense

There was an excellent article written by the Sporting News’ Bill Bender. You can read it here. A key nugget of information from that story is what Jason Candle looks for in a quarterback. Accurate. Good decisions. Footwork. Leadership. Arm strength. Woodside posses all 5, but the first two are key. Woodside completed 69.1% of his passes, and the Rockets return 2 of his top 3 receivers. Yes they lost some key pieces, but Woodside’s accuracy and good decisions should keep the offense clicking.

Along with Woodside, one of the best receivers in the country, Cody Thompson, also returns. His numbers were amazing, and he would have received even more attention had Corey Davis not been putting an exclamation point on an all-time great career at Western Michigan. 1269 yards and 11 touchdowns for Thompson in 2016. He also had 19.8 yards per reception.

Jon’Vea Johnson is the other returning receiver, and he is a special player that also averaged over 19 yards per reception. The opposing defenses really are going to have to cover the entire field.

That should bode well for Terry Swanson. Swanson has spent his career under shadow of Toledo’s all-time leading rusher, Kareen Hunt. Swanson has still been able to leave his mark. He already 2238 yards on his career.

The offense should be the strength of the team, and I would think that it will average somewhere in the 40s for point production on the season.


Rockets on Defense

The defense was a bit of an enigma last season. They kept 6 opponents under 21, yet gave up 55 twice. Part of it is schematic. I am not going to lie, I am not a huge fan of base defense that utilize a front 6 most of the time. When it works, it works great. When it doesn’t, Jamaal Williams rushes for 286 and 5 TDs, mostly right up the gut.

I expect more of the same this season. Ja’Wuan Woodley leads the team, and he is everything you want from a linebacker. A natural leader, aggressive and athletic. Unfortunately for him, he no longer has Treyvon Hester and John Stepec in front of him. The secondary also lost a key piece, DeJuan Rogers.

However, along with Woodley, the defense returns 6 other starters. Even though the losses were big time players, the Rockets should still be what they were last season. Good, but inconsistent.


Overall Expectations

20 years ago, I would have said, “Hold on here, this team has a flaw. The flaw in on defense, so don’t expect a MAC championship.” In the modern world, however, there really aren’t a lot of great defenses. Offenses are so advanced, even the best give up bad games.

Toledo could win a championship. Championships on any level are difficult, and require a variety of things to your way. I am not going to say they will win the MAC, but I do believe they have the best chance. If things fall into place, and they can get a huge win against Miami of Florida in the non-conference, then this could be a special team.