The worst fears of Toledo fans were confirmed today. The Rockets announced that starting quarterback Phillip Ely will miss the remainder of the season and seek a medical redshirt after suffering an ACL tear during Saturday's 49-24 loss to Missouri.
The injury came late in the third quarter of a contest that had already seemed to go Missouri's way. Ely left the game after collapsing untouched during a dropback, and tests revealed that the junior's season is over after making just two appearances for Toledo.
While Ely had just a short stint for the Rockets this season after transferring from Alabama, he had shown flashes of brilliance in his limited time, including a 337-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in the season opener against New Hampshire. Expectations were high that with Ely, the traditionally run-heavy Toledo offense could add a new dimension and possibly carry the Rockets to a MAC title.
Obviously, losing a starting quarterback (especially one as promising as Ely) is an enormous blow to any offense. However, there are a few reasons, including two-thirds of this offseason's three-man quarterback competition, the Rockets offense might be able to weather the storm and remain contenders in the MAC.
1. Toledo's offense is built around the running game.
The first reaction upon hearing of a quarterback's injury is to look at what the backup might do, but for Toledo, that might miss the point. Sophomore running back Kareem Hunt has been the engine of the Rockets' offense so far this season, posting an eye-popping 281 yards and five touchdowns over the first two contests.
Toledo's offensive line, led by mammoth All-MAC center Greg Mancz, might be able to win the trench battle against any conference opponent. For his part, Hunt has already shown he has the vision, patience and burst to make the most of what his line gives him, whether the opponent is from the FCS or the SEC.
While Ely's early success suggested Toledo might be able to have two above-average components to its offensive attack, the running game is likely to succeed regardless of who's under center. If Hunt, Mancz or another key lineman were to catch the injury bug, then Toledo might have reason for panic, but with all due respect to Ely, the heart of the Rockets' offense is very much still beating.
2. Logan Woodside has nearly as much game experience as Ely
While head coach Matt Campbell said he would announce a new starter later in the week, quarterback competition co-runners up Logan Woodside and Michael Julian are clearly next in line. What isn't necessarily clear is which of them will get the nod, and how short the leash will be for the player that is chosen.
Based primarily on his entrance in Saturday's game after Ely left with injury, sophomore Woodside would appear to have the inside track to the job. Woodside looked adequate, completing 6 of 10 passes for 52 yards, but as Toledo was already trailing heavily, there isn't likely much to glean from how he performed against Missouri.
Woodside's leg up on Julian is his experience as a true freshman last year. While Julian took a redshirt last season, Woodside operated as the backup to Terrance Owens, appearing in four games and even starting and going the distance in Toledo's 33-21 win over Eastern Washington while Owens sat out injured.
Woodside's career stat line does not jump off the page (27 for 51 passing, 292 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions) and he doesn't profile as a running threat, but his record isn't substantially worse than Ely's.
Both players are 1-0 as starters against FCS teams, and the two joined forces for Saturday's loss to Missouri, which was in hand by the time Woodside entered. So while the 6-foot-2 Kentucky native may not appear to have the pedigree Ely does, neither has a large enough sample size yet to demonstrate a dramatic difference in how Toledo performs when they take the field.
3. Michael Julian is incredibly gifted.
Because of his lack of experience, redshirt freshman Julian appears to be a little behind Woodside in the pecking order for now. He's thrown just one college pass, which he completed for 23 yards in the depths of garbage time in Toledo's season opener against New Hampshire.
But while very little is known about Julian's ability to play quarterback at the college level, he certainly seems to have the tools to do so. The 6-foot-5 Hilton Head, S.C. native was a football, track and basketball star in college, and he was rated a 3-star dual-threat quarterback recruit by ESPN and 24/7 Sports.
His size and speed would seem to make him a much bigger threat to run the ball than Ely or Woodside, an element that could add a wrinkle to Toledo's spread offense. So while Julian is mostly an unknown, he certainly has the skillset of a difference-making quarterback, meaning that even if he isn't named the starter, he could compete for a timeshare as a change-of-pace quarterback sooner rather than later.
When Campbell named Ely his starting quarterback two weeks ago, he said he and his staff had "the utmost confidence" in all three quarterbacks as possible starters, but had decided to go with Ely. In his press conference today, he didn't sound any less confident.
Campbell first to the podium "Phillip Ely has torn his ACL...We know we have capable quarterbacks to step in and play."
— Toledo Football (@ToledoFB) September 8, 2014
So while losing Ely for the season has to sting, Campbell and his quarterbacks appear to be prepared for this new reality, beginning Friday at Cincinnati.