Toledo Rockets: State of the program
State Of The Program: Toledo Rockets
It says something about the state of a program when seven and five with a bowl loss is a down year. Toledo hasn’t had a true down year since a five and seven mark in 2009. Since then the Rockets have been bowl eligible every year, despite changing coaches numerous times.
Below I will be evaluating some of the factors which makes the Rockets among the MAC’s elite program wise.
The Rockets have been one of the MAC’s most successful programs, winning eleven MAC titles and three since Y2K was a thing. They have won eleven division titles in the MAC West since 1997.
Wait, eleven division titles since 1997 and only three MAC titles in that time frame?
Despite being perhaps the MAC’s most consistent team, the Rockets haven’t had all that much to show for it. Their MAC Championship in 2017 was their first since Toledo Tom Amstutz roamed the Rocket sidelines back in 2004. Interestingly enough, Toledo lost tie breakers to Northern Illinois in 2005, 2011, 2014 and 2015 to keep them from playing in the MAC championship game.
While the Rockets may not have piled up the hardware from the MAC recently, the last time Toledo didn’t go bowling was 2013. That 2013 season is the only season since 2009 where Toledo did not play into December. The bad news? Toledo hasn’t won a bowl game since Jason Candles first game in 2015 vs Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl. They lost 35-32 to FIU in the Bahamas last year, which was a much better showing than their 34-0 loss to Appalachian State in 2017.
Toledo has won eight or more games seven times since 2010 with their low water marks being a pair of 7 win seasons in 2013 and 2018. The Rockets have also won nine straight against arch rival Bowling Green.
With the Rockets expected to finish first in the MAC West this year, expect the successes to continue with hopefully their second MAC championship in the last three years.
Miami may be called the Cradle of Coaches, but Toledo isn’t all that far behind. Recent head coaches Nick Saban (maybe you have heard of him?), Gary Pinkle, Tim Beckman, and Matt Campbell have all advanced from UT to the power five ranks. Few doubt that Jason Candle will be the next to advance. Candle is considered one of the best coaches among the Group of Five schools and is aided by the success of Campbell at Iowa State. At 39, Candle is 28-13 but just 1-3 in bowl games with his lone bowl victory coming in his first ever game replacing Matt Campbell vs nationally ranked Temple in 2015.
Offensive coordinator Brian Wright replaced Candle as the Rockets offensive coordinator starting in 2016. In the time since Wright has oversaw some prolific offenses, like finishing ninth nationally in scoring offense. Wright has also led some exceptional players, such as Logan Woodside, Kareem Hunt, Michael Roberts, Cody Thompson and Dionte Johnson. One could argue for all of the inclusions on Toledo’s Mount Rushmore.
Defensive coordinator Brian George comes into 2019 bruised and battered as Toledo had the MAC’s worst pass defense in 2018 and ranked eighty fourth nationally in points against. The former Kent State defensive coordinator has been at UT since 2016. Interestingly enough 2019 will be George’s first year not also coaching the defensive line.
Wide receivers coach Kevin Beard replaces Mike Bellamy, who returned to his alma mater of Illiinois. Beard has previously worked at Miami of Florida and Tennessee. Larry Black is a former all-Big Ten player, who replaces George as defensive line coach after serving on the staff at Notre Dame. Robby Discher returns after overseeing a special teams unit which led the nation in blocks a year ago. Defensive back coach Hank Poteat is a former NFL defensive back. Linebackers coach Mike Ward is a former defensive coordinator at Bowling Green and oversaw the rise of Jordan Fisher from a converted tight end to one of the top linebackers in the MAC. Ross Watson (safeties) and Mike Hallett (offensive line) are also on staff.
It is not easy being located smack dab between two major powers in Ohio State and Michigan. While the region is filled with scarlet and gray, maize and blue and the occasional green and white of Michigan State, Toledo has carved out its own brand.
Numerous news outlets cover UT’s games. It is common to see people wearing their midnight blue and gold out an about around the Glass City. This has become even more common as the Rockets have flexed their muscles over rival Bowling Green for supremacy in Northwest Ohio by winning nine straight games in the battle of I-75.
Perhaps no MAC school features such fan support as that of the Rockets. The Rockets have led the MAC in home attendance the last two seasons. The Rockets welcomed 21,352 fans to the Glass Bowl in 2018, which is impressive considering that the Rockets had a down year by their standards at seven and six.
Their attendance numbers were no doubt aided by drawing over twenty eight thousand fans for a home game against the Miami Hurricanes. The fact that Toledo continues to welcome tough competition to the Glass Bowl serves as a testament to the job Athletic Director Mike O’Brien has done. UT has welcomed Iowa State, Missouri, among others in recent years and will welcome BYU in 2019.
Toledo has invested in renovations to the Glass Bowl and to other facilities making it one of the nicer venues in the MAC, despite being in use since 1937.
The tailgating scene around the Glass Bowl is solid as students mix with more veteran fans to cheer on the Rockets. It is common to see numerous local vendors offering samples to fans and unique tailgating set ups like an ambulance painted up for Rocket football.
The student support is led by the Blue Crew, a student group which features students adorned with masks and blue work jumpsuits like that of a blue collar worker.
Toledo’s fan support is arguably the best in the MAC and even more impressive considering that Toledo is a fairly large city by MAC standards, offering much more in the way of entertainment options than say Mt. Pleasant.
Rockets in the pros
Toledo routinely sends players to the NFL.
Just this past year UT saw WR Diontae Johnson drafted in the 3rd round by the Pittsburgh Steelers and CB Ka’dar Hollman, a former walk on, drafted in the 6th round by the Green Bay Packers. Wide outs Jon’Vea Johnson, Cody Thompson, linebacker Tuzar Skipper, offensive lineman Brock Ruble and defensive tackle Reggie Howard all signed as undrafted free agents.
Former Rocket punter Brett Kern is still punting for the Tennessee Titans. Center Greg Mancz has been competing with the Houston Texans. Defensive tackle Treyvon Hester owns the hand which tipped Cody Parkey’s kick in the NFL playoff’s last season. Record setting QB Logan Woodside has returned to the NFL after playing in the AAFL.
Say what you want about Kareem Hunt but the former Rocket made the 2017 Pro Bowl after leading the NFL in rushing before missing most of 2018 following his release after a domestic situation came to light. He is currently in camp with the Cleveland Browns but will miss the first eight weeks as part of that suspension.
Other Rockets in the pros include lineman Zac Kerin, linebacker Ola Adeniyi, running back David Fluellen, lineman Elijah Nkansah, wide out Alonzo Russell, tackle Storm Norton, safety Rolan Milligan, and tackle Brant Weiss. Pass rusher Jayrone Elliott was just recently released by the Miami Dolphins.
This is a roster of NFL players which could serve as the envy of some power five schools.
Per 24/7 sports, Toledo has been held the top recruiting class in the MAC every year since 2017.
The Rockets routinely are able to compete with power five schools for talented prospects with most of their recruiting successes coming from Michigan, Ohio and the fertile grounds of Florida. Although we are seeing a bigger Rocket presence in Georgia of late.
The Rockets incoming 2019 class features eighteen three star recruits. The class may be highlighted by tight end Justin Stephens from the Dayton, Ohio area school of Madison-Trotwood. Stephens selected the Rockets over Michigan State.
Quarterback Dequan Finn was a highly successful high school quarterback from Detroit Martin Luther King, who flipped from Central Michigan late in the recruiting cycle. He will join a crowded future at the quarterback position for the Rockets who graduate Mitchell Guadagni after this year. Last year’s part time starter Eli Peters, a Illinois transfer, is only a junior in 2019. 2018 recruit Carter Bradley, the son of the former Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, is also expected to factor into the Rockets future.
As of now for their 2020 class Toledo ranks fourth in the MAC per 24/7 sports with fourteen commits. Kennesaw, Georgia native quarterback Gavin Hall is a three star commitment who has generated positive buzz for the Rockets and should add to a talent quarterbacks room once he gets on campus.
The Rockets seem to reload (no pun intended) and not rebuild. UT has become one of the MAC’s most consistent teams even if that doesn’t always result in MAC hardware. Toledo has a passionate fan base, coupled with strong institutional support. They typically follow up their wins in the fall with wins during recruiting.
Expect the Rockets to compete for a MAC title in 2019 and to be in the title picture long term.