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2019 Toledo Rockets Football Key Storylines

Looking ahead at the key story lines for the Rockets in 2019.

NCAA Football: Miami at Toledo Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It is not very often that you will find a school in the Mid-American Conference that has a winning record, plays in a bowl game, beats a rival *and* sends several players to the pros.... while still considering it a down year.

For the Toledo Rockets, who were coming off of a dominant MAC championship season in 2017, a limping 7-6 record was not expected in 2018. Injuries absolutely affected the Rockets' chances of repeating, but alas, it wasn't their only flaw in a season which could have finished differently with a few different chances.

Now the Rockets are reloading, and are healthy and optimistic about a new defense which they hope will prove the national prognosticators correct in picking UT to come out of the MAC West and advance to Detroit.

Guadagni vs. Peters

The Rockets offense last season was among the best in the nation, ranking in the top 20 in most major offensive categories, including 7th overall nationally in total offense. However, the Rockets suffered through a trying season from the quarterback position. Mitchell Guadagni, a former three-tar recruit from Hudson, Ohio, was first tabbed to replace Logan Woodside. He would play in just seven games before being injured, opening the door for Illinois transfer Eli Peters.

Both Guadagni and Peters return to the Rockets, but it is expected to be Guadagni’s job to lose. While Guadagni had his rough spots, he still managed a fairly good 13:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and was leading the MAC in passer efficiency at the time of his injury.

Guadagni also adds some mobility to the Rocket lineup, and was the leading Rocket rusher in four of the seven games he played, once earning Player of the Week honors in a game vs. Nevada. Now a senior, if Guadagni can stay healthy in the high-octane Rocket attack he could find himself in All-MAC team territory.

If there was an upside to Guadagni’s injury it is that the Rockets presumed backup, Peters, now has experience. He played in all 12 games and started 6 of them for the Rockets, including the Bahamas Bowl, where he threw three touchdowns in the Rocket defeat to FIU.

Like Guadagni, Peters was MAC Player of the Week for his performance vs rival Bowling Green State University. However, Peters' ultimate flaw was not as efficient as his counterpart, completing only 55 percent of his passes with an 18:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Redshirt freshman Carter Bradley, the son of the Chargers defensive coordinator Gus, is also waiting in the mix. The former Elite 11 prospect played in three games last season while retaining his freshman eligibility. He could push Peters for the backup job or for the starting job next year once Guadagni graduates. DeQuan Finn was a late recruiting flip from Central Michigan University and was Mr. Football in the state of Michigan, while leading Detroit MLK to a state title.

Will The Defense Improve?

Quick: what three teams did the Rockets hold under 20 points last season?

(If you guessed FCS VMI, 1-11 Central Michigan and 4-8 Ball State, you would be right.)

When the season was all said and done, the Rockets had the 80th best defense in college football, allowing 30.5 points per game. Basically, as good as the offense was the offense was equally as bad, if not worse. Having the MAC’s worst pass defense in a pass-happy league certainly played a large role in their six loses.

Now, Toledo must replace Ka’Dar Holloman, a sixth round pick of the Green Bay Packers and defensive tackle Reggie Howard (LA Chargers UDFA) among others. The defense is not without talent, as Nate Childress and Jamal Hines anchor the line up front in 2019. Hines was a freshman last year whose experience should help. He is expected to be one of the MAC’s top defensive players and could be a name to watch for a break out season.

Converted tight end Jordan Fisher returns at linebacker while Justin Clark and Dedarallo Blue return as starters with Blue having 27 career starts under his belt. The other returning defensive starter Kahlil Robinson has shown a nose for the football with five career picks.

If Toledo is to live up to its lofty goals of reaching Detroit, then the defense must improve.

Who will the offense turn to for big plays?

When you think of great Toledo players, offensive playmakers are probably those that you picture. Names like Chester Taylor, Eric Page, Lance Moore and many others. It seems as if the Rockets just know how to reload the Rocket.

Wide receiver Diontae Johnson was a third round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, while fellow receivers Jon’Vea Johnson and the beloved Cody Thompson signed undrafted free agent contracts with the Cowboys and Chiefs, respectively. Then backup Rocket backs Art Thompkins (UConn), Nicholas Sims (Indiana State) and Nevone McCrimmon all left the program leaving the Rockets needy for depth in the backfield. All those loses would be hard for a Power Five school to overcome, let alone a MAC school.

The Rockets will look to two potential All-MAC running backs to fill the voids. Bryant Koback transferred back home after a year at Kentucky and was just 83 yards shy of 1,000 on the year in 2018, averaging an excellent six yards per carry.

Shakif Seymour had over 700 yards, a 6.3 yards per carry average in 2017, putting himself on the map with a five-touchdown performance against rival BGSU. Seymour's play took a slight step back last year, but he still had over 100 yards vs BGSU and 565 yards total in the 2018 season.

An injury to one of Toledo’s big two could lead to relying on someone inexperienced for carries. Micah Kelly is a three-star true freshman, Ronnie Jones is a former safety who saw brief action last season (144 yards on 29 carries), and 5’9" true freshman Brandon Haley are the only remaining running backs on the roster.

Tight end Reggie Gilliam returns after being second-team all MAC last year, and senior Desmond Phillips is a returning starter after 27 catches last year. Danzel McKinley-Lewis missed most of last season after starting all 14 games during their MAC championship season of 2017, and will be in a "prove it" year as a likely candidate for targets in 2019.

Bryce Mitchell is a local product who played in every game last year. Nick Kovacs saw time on special team last year. Andrew Davis, and a crew of incoming freshman are also players to watch to provide depth.

A name for the future is Justin Stephens. The true freshman was a three star recruit out of Madison-Trotwood. He picked UT over Michigan State, Boston College and others.

Can the Rockets continue their dominance against BGSU in the I-75 Rivalry?

If you talk to any member of the Toledo’s famed Blue Crew or any alumni, you will see why this is a storyline. The Rockets have dominated That Team Down South, not losing to the Falcons since 2010.

The recent domination has given the Rockets a 40-39-4 advantage in The Battle of I-75 rivalry all-time. Even in what was a somewhat disappointing year in the Glass City, the Rockets still beat up on Bowling Green 52-36.

Mike Jenks is gone from the Plains and new Falcon head coach Scot Loeffler looks to be a more formidable adversary, as the Falcons are making inroads for recruiting. The Falcons are still likely a year or more away from competing with the Rockets but in a rivalry anything can happen.

A Falcon upset would make their season. Another Rocket victory, this time at Doyt Perry Stadium, during the 100th year celebration of “the Doyt” would make for another easy fall and winter locally for Rocket fans in Northwest Ohio.

The Schedule, Foe Early and Friend Late:

If you stopped reading Toledo’s schedule after the first four games, you would think their season a lost cause.

The Rockets open in SEC territory vs the University of Kentucky Wildcats, the reigning Citrus Bowl Champions. FCS Murray State (5-6 last year and must replace their QB) should provide a breather of sorts before a trip out west vs. Colorado State. The Rams had a down year at 3-9 last year but any road trip west of the Mississippi can be rough and Fort Collins has that thin air, which can provide a home field advantage.

The Toledo athletic department brings in another solid non-conference foe with BYU. The game is a return for when Toledo traveled to Provo in 2016, a 55-53 Rocket defeat. BYU went just 7-6 last year and lost to Northern Illinois University 7-6 before routing Western Michigan, 49-18 in the Potato Bowl.

But things get easier after the non-conference schedule. Toledo hosts Western Michigan for Homecoming but also draw Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois at home. The Road to Detroit should literally go through the Glass Bowl as those four schools are the four expected to contend in the MAC West.

Toledo’s road games in-conference are against Ball State, Buffalo and Central Michigan and of course, rival BGSU.

Toledo’s non-conference schedule could see the Rockets get off to a so-so start but should have the team prepared for a run at the MAC title come conference play.

Jason Candle’s Future:

Following the 2017 MAC Championship, Jason Candle was among the hottest names in coaching. A 7-6 season and a raise later, Candle is still in Toledo without as much buzz last off-season.

Don’t let that fool you.

Toledo and the MAC as a whole are fertile ground for producing coaches. Nick Saban, Gary Pinkle, Tim Beckman, and Matt Campbell have all been recent Rocket coaches to find themselves coaching at a power five school.

Candle is seen as a direct descendant of the Campbell coaching tree and Campbell himself has Iowa State relevant while drawing NFL interest. Interested teams can paint that same connection.

Simply put, if Toledo wins or has the season it is expected to have, we could be seeing the last of coach Candle in the midnight blue and gold. But having to potentially replace another coach after a successful season, would be a nice problem to have.