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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Toledo Rockets Defensive Front Seven

Lost in the craziness of 2020 was the Rockets ascension to being one of the better defensive fronts in the MAC.

Ball State v Toledo Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Toledo Rockets have been one of the most consistently competitive schools in the conference for over a decade-plus. But while the Rockets offense is usually a high-flier which doesn’t require a lot of fine tuning from year-to-year, the defense has its own reputation for being been hit-or-miss.

In an effort to change that, head coach Jason Candle engaged in a complete re-shuffle of his coaching staff in the 2020 offseason. It seemed to have worked, with the UT defense allowing just 24 points per game, and topping the MAC with 362 yards per game allowed. The Rockets didn’t qualify for the MAC West division title, but they finished an admirable 4-2 in a COVID-shortened campaign.

Part of the optimism surrounding the Rockets is their innate recruiting ability. UT routinely has some of the top recruiting classes in the MAC, which shows in their depth throughout the defensive line, as most of their players are former three-star recruits.

The Rocket front seven is led by returning second-team all-MAC selections in defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson and edge rusher Jamal Hines.

Johnson, a junior out of Detroit, was fourth on the team with 27 tackles, and had a team high eight tackles-for-loss to go with three sacks. Hines, a junior from Cincinnati, finished third on the team with 29 tackles, two sacks and an interception on the season. His second team all-MAC selection was his second time earning all-MAC honors, having previously achieved a third-team selection in 2019. He also earned MAC West defensive player of the week honors for his efforts against EMU.

Defensive end Terrance Taylor, a junior from Chicago, started in four of the five games he played in last fall, registering 20 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss with a sack and a half. In 2019, he had three sacks.

Transfer Judge Culpepper joins the program from Penn State. Culpepper played for Toledo assistant Robert Weiner at Plant High School in Tampa, where he was a high three-star recruit with several Big Ten and SEC offers, per 247Sports. He played in 22 games for the Nittany Lions, including in nine games last season, mostly on special teams. He brings needed size to the middle of the Rocket defense and should compete to start.

Culpepper is likely to be competing with returning starter David Hood for playing time at tackle. Hood, a graduate senior out of Miami, started all six games last fall with 13 tackles, three and a half tackles for loss, with a fumble recovery. Hood has been with the program since redshirting in the 2016 season.

End Nate Givhan appeared in five games (starting one) a season ago, after starting in seven games in the previous season. Senior end Chris Redmon did not see game action last fall as a graduate transfer from Mississippi State out of the SEC, but could compete for a spot in camps. Adrian Woliver, a sophomore, appeared in all six games last fall and should provide rotational depth. Former St. Thomas Aquinas [FL] product D’Andre Ragin, also saw game action in five games last fall.

The Rockets feature impressive depth at defensive tackle beyond Culpepper and Hood. Kentucky transfer Cavon Butler, from nearby Whitmer HS, appeared in three games last fall. He is a former high three-star recruit. Devan Rogers played in all six games last fall with 15 tackles and a sack. Darius Alexander, a redshirt freshman, is seeking a bigger role after seeing time in all six games as a reserve last year.

In addition along the defensive line, the Rockets have several ascending talents who could push for time but might be a year away as developmental players. Those players include end CJ Wilson and tackles Doran Ray Jr.; Martez Poynter; Dorian Wesley; Jaelen Crider and Esean Carter.

At linebacker, like the rest of the Rockets roster, return talent.

Junior Dyontae Johnson, from Michigan HS powerhouse Cass Tech, was surprisingly not an all-MAC selection a year ago, despite leading the Rockets with 47 total tackles. He led the team in tackles in four of six games, adding 4.5 tackles-for-loss for good measure. Johnson should be among the MAC’s best backers in 2021.

Daniel Bolden, and his all-MAC level facial hair, also returns after starting five games last fall. He registered 20 total tackles, one for loss and one QB hurry on the season. He had 39 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2019. Bolden will certainly be in the mix for a starting position in 2021.

Graduate senior Jonathan Jones will compete for time after playing in all six games (starting one) last fall. He had 19 total tackles, including eight vs Central Michigan. It was his first season in the Glass City after transferring from Notre Dame. While at Notre Dame, he played in 38 games for the Fighting Irish, collecting 16 tackles. Interestingly enough, he will face his old crew when Toledo travels to Notre Dame on Sept. 11.

There are other contributors who will look to maintain a role in the linebacking corps, whether that’s on special teams or as a backup. Amongst the players with game experience include: junior AJ Crider (four games in 2020); redshirt freshman Jackson Barrow (three games); Josh Recker (three games) and Alex Enders saw time in one game last fall.

Sawiaha Ellis, Vontrell Chairse, Connor Jones, Damon Ollison II, Jeremiah Peters, Isaiah Pipkin, and Jalen Riven, a local product from Toledo Central Catholic high school, are talented, young ascending players, who could compete for time as they develop.

Tycean Anderson returns to Toledo’s STAR position, but as that is more of a defensive back position, I will be including him and that position in the Toledo secondary preview piece.

Coaches for the Rockets front seven include former Mount Union legend Vince Kehres, who serves as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and Craig Kuligowski, who is Kehres’ co-coordinator and also coaches the outside linebackers. Larry Black coaches the defensive line.

The Rockets are supported by some of the best fans in the MAC, but those fans are growing restless, as the Rockets have finished with win totals of 7, 6 and 4 the last three years, and haven’t made a bowl game since the 2018 Bahamas Bowl. (Toledo would have been eligible for a bowl game in 2020, were there not major restrictions on conference representative eligibility due to COVID.)

The improvements that their defense showed last fall, coupled with their returning experience should have the Rockets among the top contenders for the MAC title and a spot in Detroit.

Not only will the Rockets defense front seven be among the most experienced in the conference but it also should be among the best.