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By MIKE SMITH
So near and yet so far!
For all their success in recent years, the Toledo Rockets have not been able claim a MAC title during that surge. The last time UT hoisted the trophy, in fact, was 2004. With a wealth of talent returning, Toledo certainly has an offense with 2013 title credentials. The question may be: Does it have enough defense?

PictureDavid Fluellen was a 2012 Doak Walker Award semifinalist.
SENIORS HELPED TURN PROGRAM AROUND
This year’s senior class represents a turning point in UT’s football fortunes. The Rockets had gone through three straight losing seasons prior to the class of 2013’s arrival as freshmen.  Toledo then went 8-5, 9-4 and 9-4. With those marks came three bowl appearances, yet nary one trip to the MAC Championship game.

Timing is often key, and the Rockets’ rise coincided with Northern Illinois’ leap to MAC West supremacy.  As the 2013 season approaches, UT players, coaches and fans realize that not only is NIU returning its own championship-caliber squad, other MAC West programs will be fielding strong teams, as well.

"At the end of the day, our goals remain the same," said UT head coach Matt Campbell. "We want to win the MAC West Division, win the MAC Championship Game, go to a bowl game and get our team GPA to as close to a 3.0 as possible. But to get there, we need to focus on the process. We need to work hard at getting better every day. That’s the only way I know how to reach your goals."

Campbell joined Toledo in 2009 and was appointed offensive coordinator. That Rockets offense finished 16th in the nation. It was a peek at things to come as the Toledo offense continued to shine. By 2011, UT owned the eighth-ranked offense in the country.

When head coach Tim Beckman moved on to Illinois following that campaign, Campbell moved up into the HC role. His quest, and the Rockets quest, is to bring home a 2013 MAC title.

OFFENSE

Offense will once again lead the way. Simply put, the Rockets are LOADED! With outstanding talent at quarterback, running back, receiving positions and along an experienced line, UT will be a huge challenge for opposing defensive coordinators.

Nine starters return on offense. Among them is First Team All-MAC running back David Fluellen (6-0, 215, SR). The 2012 Doak Walker Award (nation’s top running back) semifinalist gained 1,498 yards despite missing the season finale against Akron. He was also injured early in the Rockets’ loss to Utah State in the 2012 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. That injury, coupled with the loss of defensive standout Dan Molls on the opening kickoff, set the tone for a tough day.

With major injuries hopefully behind them, Fluellen and the Rockets are now poised TO dish out a season of tough days for opposing defenses. Five returning Rocket offensive players earned All-MAC honors in 2012.

Quarterback Terrance Owens, also battled some injuries (ankle) last season. However, Owens (6-4, 205, SR) is healthy again, and hopes to repeat the monster season he had in 2011 when he set the MAC record by completing 72.2 percent of his passes.

Among his targets is Bernard Reedy. The 5-9, 175-pound senior from St. Petersburg, Fla. is on both the Biletnikoff Award (receiver) and Hornung Award (most versatile) watch lists. He was a First Team All-MAC selection at both receiver and punt returner, as well as Second Team All-MAC as a kickoff returner. Suffice it to say, he is dangerous the second he gets a ball in his hands, and the Rockets see to it he gets plenty of touches. Reedy was sixth in the nation in all-purpose yards last year.

A bigger target is 6-4 sophomore Alonzo Russell. He caught 56 passes and earned Second Team All-MAC honors while averaging 17.1 yards per catch as a freshman. Like Reedy, Russell  is very capable of turning in the big play. His haul included a 59-yard TD against Arizona, a 60-yarder at EMU and a season-best 66-yard TD grab versus Bowling Green.

Sophomore Kishon Wisher is a former cornerback who can add even more speed to the fleet receiving corps, as well as special teams. He missed most last year with an injury. Others adding to depth at the position are juniors Justin Olack, Dwight Macon and senior James Green.

Sophomore Alex Zmolik had a pair of touchdowns and distinguished himself as a blocker at tight end in 2012.

No small amount of credit for what makes the Rockets’ offense click is an experienced line that includes four returning starters. Centering the unit, literally and figuratively, is Rimington Award candidate and All-MAC First Teamer Zac Kerin. 

DEFENSE

On paper, the defense appears to be an inverse of Toledo’s offensive experience. Eight starters departed, but the Rockets have been managing playing time in order to build more depth. There were also injuries, especially along the front line.

"One of the things that helps us on the defensive line is that because of injuries last year we were forced to play a lot guys," said Campbell. "That hurt us last year but will help us as we go forward."

Senior defensive end Christian Smith, if he stays healthy, could be a big cog for the Rockets’ “D.” A part time starter in his freshman and sophomore years, Smith became a full time starter in 2012. He was leading the down-linemen in tackles when he suffered a season-ending injury in Game 5.

"It was tough losing Christian last year," said Campbell. "He has recovered nicely from his knee injury. He’s played a lot of football here and is definitely one of the leaders on this team."

Classmate Jayrone Elliott is part of a group challenging for the other defensive end spot. Others include former linebacker Ray Bush (JR), as well as sophomores Allen Covington and Kennan Gibbs.

Senior Elijay Jones (6-2, 305) is the most experienced interior lineman on defensive side, and he recorded 7.5 TFL in 2012. JUCO transfer Robert Zimmerman (6-3, 325), a one-time Texas A&M signee, could also be a stopper.

One of the Rockets biggest losses from last year is the departure of linebacker Dan Molls, who recorded 266 stops over the 2012 campaign. Though just a sophomore, Trent Voss has the makings to step into the gap.

"Trent can play inside or outside linebacker, but we will probably start him on the outside at the star position," Campbell said.  "He had a great freshman season, and he’s kept that momentum going in the off-season. Trent is as skilled as any linebacker we’ve had at Toledo since I’ve been here. We like the mentality he plays the game with."

Seniors Vladimir Emilen (33 tackles in 2012) and Ethan Kagy will be in the outside linebacker mix. Among those in a battle for “Mike” and “Will” linebacker spots are Junior Sylvestre (49 tackles in 2012), sophomore Chase Murdock and redshirt freshman Jaylen Coleman.

The secondary was hit hard by graduation (three starters), but like other defensive groups, there is somebody to build around. In the case of the secondary, that somebody is junior cornerback Cheatham Norrils. He notched Third Team All-MAC honors after logging 76 tackles and two interceptions.

"Cheatham has the talent to be one of the better players in the conference. He just needs to work on his consistency." Campbell said.

Sophomores Juwan Hayes and Chris Dukes, as well as junior Cameron Cole, also figure at the corners.

Senior Ross Madison (24 tackles) and junior Jordan Haden (16 tackles, two INTs) are veterans available for strong safety. Redshirt freshman D.J. Larkins and sophomore Chaz Whittaker will vie for time at free safety.

"At safety, we don’t have a lot of experience but one guy who has played a lot is Ross Madison," Campbell said. "He has played well for us and should help us bridge the experience gap at safety. Jordan Haden will probably play both safety and corner, but we are going to start him off at safety and let him challenge for a starting spot there."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Toledo’s offense should provide an abundance of scoring opportunities, and that goes for the placekicker as well. Junior Jeremiah Detmer earned  Second Team All-MAC honors in 2012 after connecting on 24-of-29 field goals, including his last 17 kicks in a row. He also produced 23 touchbacks on kickoffs.

Senior punter Vince Penza averaged 40.5 yards per boot and showed accuracy. Opponents managed to return just 15 punts for an average of 7.2 ypr.

Toledo ranked second  (MAC play) in punt returns but was 10th in kick returns, so there is room for improvement in the latter. UT finished fourth (MAC play) in kickoff coverage.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW

At least offensively, Toledo should be one of the league’s most exciting teams to watch. Barring injuries, it has the talent to keep the scoreboard busy.  On a given day, the Rockets can make an opponent look pretty bad. But for UT to reach its goal of a MAC championship, the defense needs to step up – especially in crucial contests. Toledo can ill-afford a slip against anybody. But if the Rockets take care of business, they get Northern Illinois at home November 20, leaving only a regular season finale at Akron.

NOTES

- Toledo’s  hopes to improve its defensive ranking despite significant personnel losses. The Rockets were 109th nationally in overall defense. UT finished 116th against the pass, 78th against rushes and 67th in scoring defense. 

- After failing to play an SEC team for their first 92 years, the Rockets meet two SEC foes in 2013. UT opens the season against Florida in “The Swamp” Aug. 31. One week later, Toledo goes Missouri where they will match up against the Tigers of former UT head coach Gary Pinkel.

Pinkel coached the Rockets from 1991-2000, going 73-37-3. Missouri was 5-7 in 2012, its first season in the SEC. It was the Tigers first losing season since 2004.

- Two other non-conference foes could provide a good matchup. Eastern Washington was 9-2 in 2012, advancing to the FCS playoff semi-finals. The Eagles reigned as FCS national champs in 2010.

Both Eastern Washington and Navy (8-5) visit the Glass Bowl. The Midshipmen went 8-5 last year, earning a berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

- If Toledo gets a bowl ticket this year, the Rockets will have appeared in bowl games each of the last four years.

- In addition to the Nov. 20 date against NIU (at home), Toledo has a key matchup Sept. 28 when it meets Ball State in Muncie.

- The rivalry game against neighboring Bowling Green is set for Oct. 26 at BG. The Falcons are a strong MAC East contender. UT won last year’s meeting, 27-15.

-- Photo courtesy of Toledo Athletics

                 


 


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