Q & A With Head Coach Matt Campbell
Question and answer session with Toledo head football coach Matt Campbell as his Rockets open training camp on Aug. 1.
How do you assess your squad coming into the 2013 season?
Campbell:The first thing I will say is that every year presents a new type of football team. I think the dynamic of this team is that we have some players who have played a lot of football and have been successful in our football program, but then there are a lot of really young guys that are getting their first opportunity to battle for positions.
So our goal during the off-season has been to really challenge this football team, make them compete and hold them accountable to each and every detail. And I really like the way this team has worked. I think it’s a team that so far has shown the ability to work hard every day.
We are going to see some great position battles unfold in training camp. That’s probably the most exciting thing for our coaching staff. I really believe we will have a very deep team.
You had a successful season last year but didn’t accomplish your main goal, namely a MAC Championship. What gives you confidence that this year’s team will be different?
Campbell:For one, our players know better what to expect from the coaching staff. The leadership foundation in our program is strong and gets stronger every year. We have a lot of guys who know what the process is to be successful and who have played in critical situations. That kind of experience is critical.
Are there any key areas that need to improve, or that the coaching staff is focusing on? I think of last year when you said improved special teams needed to be a focus, and that area ended up being a big plus.
Campbell:Most of our losses were very close games last year, so in the end it comes down to details. We need to consistently take care of those details. The other key is depth. Injuries really hurt us last year, so you need depth to deal with that. You’re going to have injuries so the deeper you are as a football team, the better chance you have to be successful. We have to do a good job at preparing everybody to play.
What kind of details are you focusing on?
Campbell:I think our attitude and effort was tremendous in every game. There was not a game that the Toledo Rockets did not show up. But what we saw when we looked at the films of our losses is that the details of execution were not always what they needed to be in really critical situations. The only way to fix that is you have to come to work every day and try to get better at the details. I think that’s been our priority in the off-season.
Those details could be anything from working on red-zone offense and red-zone defense, to being more successful on third downs, to understanding the importance of field position in every special teams play. Our focus has been on the details, things like finishing through the line during running drills. It’s a question of being accountable to your teammates every day.
Your players had a 3.0 team grade point average for the first time in the history of the program. What do you feel is the connection between academics and football?
Campbell:I wouldn’t even limit the conversation to academics. It’s about the total culture. You are dealing with 18-22 year-old young men. Our job is to make sure they understand the expectation here is that they need to be the best they can be at all times in all ways. That means going to class and understanding the value of a college degree. It means understanding the importance of giving back to the community and conducting yourself in a first-class manner. Doing those things helps our players understand the value of becoming the best football player they can become. It’s hard to win football games. You need to be consistent. So we try to teach our players to be consistent in everything they do. That’s the connection.
Looking at your depth chart, it’s obvious that your offense has much more experience than your defense. Do you think about that as a staff? Does it affect your approach to coaching?
Campbell:We don’t really think about it. We know we’ve recruited well here so we have confidence in the players who are coming up the ranks. What you have to do sometimes as coaches, though, is adapt to your talent. Our foundation is: players-formations-plays. Find out who your best players are, find out what formations you want to use and find out what plays you want to run. Every year is a brand-new team. It’s our job as coaches to put our team into the best possible position to win.
Okay, let’s talk about the players. How important is it to have three outstanding players at the three key offensive positions: Terrance Owens at quarterback, David Fluellen at running back and Bernard Reedy at wide receiver?
Campbell:What I love about these guys is that they are great competitors. They love football and they love to win. They are not into individual accomplishments. They are all about winning. When your best players have that mentality, especially at those key positions, you have a great chance to be successful.
You’ve lost a lot of good players to graduation, particularly on the defensive line. Who are you counting on there and who are players you are looking to step up?
Campbell:One of the things that helps us on the defensive line is that we were forced to play a lot guys last year because of injuries. That hurt us but will help us as we go forward. When you look at our defensive line, you have to look inside at (senior) Elijah Jones and (sophomore) Orion Jones. Elijah had a very productive junior season. We look for him to provide consistency and leadership. Orion played as a true freshman and did a great job for us. We’re really excited about how he has matured as a player.
Behind those two we have (sophomore) Chris Collins, another guy who played as a true freshman last year. He’s right around 300 pounds now and one of the strongest players in our program. We were also really fortunate to bring in a guy like (JC transfer) Robert Zimmerman. He’s been with us since January and really worked hard. He’s big, right around 315, 320 right now. He’s lost 15 to 20 pounds and is looking good. He can run and plays with a high motor. We’re excited to see what he looks like by this fall.
At the defensive end spot, even though we lost some players it’s nice to have some players back who have been productive in our system. (Senior) Christian Smith 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. It was tough losing him last year. On the other side we have (senior) Jayrone Elliott. His development over the last three years has been impressive. He’s one of the better athletes on our team and can really get after the quarterback. He’s put on about 10 or 15 pounds and looks great right now. He has the ability to be an elite defensive lineman.
One player that we are excited about is (sophomore) Keenan Gibbs. He will be challenging for a starting spot. He missed all of last season with an injury, but he’s been an MVP during off-season workouts. We’re looking forward to having him healthy and back out there. We’re also moving (junior) Ray Bush from linebacker to defensive end. He’s up to about 245 pounds and looks great. He’s a long-bodied guy with quickness. We’re excited to see how he does. (Junior) Grant Pleasant and (sophomore) Allen Covington also have potential at defensive end.
At linebacker, you are losing the heart of your defense in Dan Molls, but also another starter, Robert Bell. So who is going to play linebacker for you this year?
Campbell:This may sound surprising but we may have the best depth we’ve ever had at linebacker. We’re very excited about (sophomore) Trent Voss. Trent can play inside or outside linebacker, but we will probably start him on the outside at the star position. 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.
We are fortunate to have a pair of seniors behind Trent at outside linebacker. Vladimir Emilien is coming off an injury but is ready to go. We have great expectations for Vlad. Ethan Kagy will move from safety to outside linebacker.
At one of the inside spots, we are looking at (junior) Junior Sylvestre to step up. Junior mostly played outside linebacker last year, but we decided to move him into the box to the "Will" linebacker spot. We moved him there during the bowl practices and he really played well, which turned out to be a good thing because that’s where he ended up playing in the bowl game due to Dan Molls’ injury. Junior maybe had the best spring of anyone on our team. His confidence level is very high right now. (Junior) Drake Fletcher, a preferred walk-on, will be battling Junior for playing time.
At the "Mike" linebacker spot, we have a great race between (sophomore) Chase Murdock and (redshirt freshman) Jaylen Coleman. Chase had an opportunity to play on special teams last year and did a great job, and Jaylen has worked hard so we will be looking at him, as well.
Can you talk about your secondary?
Campbell:At cornerback we have (junior) Cheatham Norrils. Cheatham was third-team All-MAC last year and has the talent to be one of the better players in the conference. He just needs to work on his consistency. (Sophomore) Juwan Haynes played a lot as a true freshman last year. He brings a lot to the table. (Sophomore) Chris Dukes saw a lot of action as a backup last year so we are eager to see how he has improved. Another player to watch is (junior) Cameron Cole, a junior-college transfer who is in his second year in the program. And (sophomore) Kishon Wilcher is back after missing most of last year with an injury. He was one of our better special teams players as a freshman and has experience at corner, though he may end up playing at the wide receiver spot.
At safety, we don’t have a lot of experience but one guy who has played a lot is (senior) Ross Madison. He has played well for us and should help us bridge the experience gap at safety. (Junior) 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. And two young guys who stand out are (sophomore) Chaz Whittaker and (redshirt freshman) D.J. Larkins. Chaz played a ton on special teams and got an opportunity to play a little bit at safety. He has a chance to be special. D.J. redshirted as a wide receiver last year, but we felt he could help us in the secondary this year. (Redshirt freshman) Travis Nees is another safety who had a good off-season for us, as well.
Okay, let’s shift to the offense. The offensive line has four of five starters returning. That’s a good place to start.
Campbell:I think that piece of the puzzle is positive for us. If you would have asked me about the offensive line at this time last year, I would have said there were some question marks. We thought our top five guys would be good, but we were worried about our depth. But now I think we are as good and as deep as we’ve ever been across our offensive front.
You can start with our All-MAC linemen, (senior center) Zac Kerin and (junior guard) Greg Mancz. Zac might be as good a center as there is in the country. He deserves to be talked about like that. Greg is also one of the best offensive linemen in our conference. And then we have our other two returning starters, (junior guard) Jeff Myers and (sophomore tackle) Josh Hendershot, who were very solid for us on the left side of the line last year.
We will have a good battle for the right tackle spot. Right now the leading candidates are (junior) Chase Nelson and (junior) Rob Lisowski. Chase has had a great off-season. Rob saw the most playing time last year of any of our reserves. When he had an opportunity to play, Rob did a lot of good things for us.
We have some young players who redshirted as freshmen last year that we are excited to see this summer. James Henry and Storm Norton are big tackles who have had good off-seasons. We are very eager to see them develop. Paul Pershon and Ray Marlowe are guards who are in a position to compete for playing time. And Collin Perchinske is a sophomore can play either guard or tackle.
How about at tight end?
Campbell:There is great competition at tight end. Our top returner is (sophomore) Alex Zmolik, who was about as productive as any freshman we had last year. He’s a fine pass-catcher and blocker. Inside the box he’s a tough kid. Backing him up is (redshirt freshman) Craig Runyan. He had to sit our last year with a shoulder injury, but we’re glad to have him back and excited to see what he can do. (Redshirt freshman) Mike Ebert is another young guy who got hurt in fall camp last year but was able to come back and start practicing again in the bowl season.
I’d like to also mention (junior) Zac Rosenbauer, who plays the fullback/H-Back spot in our offense. Zac was very effective in that role last year and proved he belonged on the field in critical situations. Backing up Zac is (junior) Dawalyn Harper who is now full-time on the offensive side of the ball.
We’ve also been giving (redshirt freshman quarterback) Brian Blackburn some reps at tight end. He’s got a big body so it’s an intriguing possibility.
At wide receiver you have a great one, senior Bernard Reedy.
Campbell:It’s been great to see Bernard’s development since his freshman season. A year ago everybody was asking how we would replace Eric Page. We never thought too much about it because we knew we had Bernard. He’s one of those guys who practices just as hard as he plays. He’s a leader; he brings it every day.
(Sophomore) Alonzo Russell had a big freshman season. He has big-play ability. Now he needs to take the next step and add consistency to his game. If he can do that he has a chance to be a very special football player. Our third returning starter, (junior) Justin Olack, played his best football at the end of last season. He could have a break-out season for us.
(Junior) Dwight Macon will continue to split time at wide receiver and quarterback. Dwight is very talented and can do a lot of things on the football field. (Sophomore) Zach Rogers has also shown us flashes that he can be a great football player. And then there’s James Green, who’s a senior now and has really worked hard this off-season.
The running back position looks strong, too.
Campbell:(Senior) David Fluellen is healthy and looks great. He’s established himself as a premier running back, really one of the best in the country. We’re also really excited to see how (junior) Cassius McDowell develops. He gives us that quick, speedy back to complement David. Another guy who could have played as a true freshman last year, but we decided to redshirt him is Damian Jones-Moore. We are excited about his future in the program. Another redshirt freshman back there is Marc Remy. Marc has played receiver and running back, but we played him at running back last spring. He’s much stronger now; he’s added about 10 to 15 pounds and has great potential.
Your situation at quarterback is different compared to the last couple of seasons. Instead of two relatively equal players battling for playing time, you have a clear leader, senior Terrance Owens.
Campbell:Yes, it’s a little different. We have one quarterback, (senior) Terrance Owens, who took about 80 percent of the snaps last year. He’s a veteran and it shows. He’s more comfortable now as a leader on this team. We can put a lot more of the offense in his hands and let him run with it. He’s a fifth-year senior now and has a right to claim the starting position.
Will Owens benefit by knowing he is the starting quarterback instead of battling for his job like he did the past three years?
Campbell:The challenge never really leaves. I think the young quarterbacks in our program will challenge him. But Terrance is not bothered by competition. He’s never shaken. His demeanor was always the same whether he was the starter or whether he came off the bench. Terrance was one of our most consistent players last year, and I don’t see that changing. If everybody on our team matches his level of consistency, that would be a great benefit for us. Not only do I think Terrance is one of the better quarterbacks in our conference, I believe he is one of the better quarterbacks in the country. His goal is to win a MAC championship. That’s the one goal he wants to accomplish in his college career.
We didn’t know the full extent of it at the time, but Terrance Owens played the second half of the season with significant ankle ailments. How does he stand physically?
Campbell:Terrance comes into the season 100 percent. Based on what we ask our quarterback to do, he’s going to take a lot of wear and tear. Terrance did everything he could do to get out on the field every week. Sometimes he wasn’t 100 percent, but he was always willing to go out there and fight for us. It wasn’t until the Akron game (last regular-season game) when he just could not go. But he always gave us a chance to win. He’s special, probably one of the best quarterbacks I’ve been around. He understands how important his senior year is, and I also think he feels he has something to prove.
Can you say who the back-up quarterback is at this point?
Campbell:It will be interesting. (True freshman) Logan Woodside has put himself in a position to compete for that spot with his performance last spring. (Junior) Dwight Macon and (redshirt freshman) Brian Blackburn will also get reps in training camp, but both of those guys will be taking reps are other positions, too, Macon at wide receiver and Blackburn at tight end. We also have another true freshman, Michael Julian, who could be very intriguing.
Special teams was greatly improved in 2012. I know that was an area of priority for you. How do you assess special teams going into next year?
Campbell:We improved immensely on special teams last year. Credit goes to (special team coach) Stan Watson, and a lot of credit goes to the key guys on our special teams. (Senior punter) Vince Penza made great strides last year. We found a system that fits what he does. He does a great job of getting the football where he wants it to go. With (junior) J.D. Detmer, we have one of the best kickers in the country, in my opinion. He’s got a great leg and is deadly accurate. He was good as a freshman but added consistency to his game. The silent leader on special teams is (senior) long snapper Matt Wall. I don’t think there is a more consistent long snapper in the country.
You can’t do much better at kickoff and punt return than Bernard Reedy.
Campbell:Bernard Reedy makes our kicking game so dangerous. He can score at any time, whether it’s on kickoff returns or punt returns. I’d also like to mention what a lift we will get on our special teams with the return of (sophomore) Kishon Wilcher. Kishon was one of our top tacklers on the kick team in 2011 and we really missed him last year. We really like (redshirt freshman) D.J. Larkins as a special teams player, too. Both he and Kishon could be returning kicks this year, too.
Okay, let’s talk about the schedule. Every year we say, "This is the toughest schedule we’ve ever had." But this really is Toledo’s toughest schedule ever, isn’t it? I mean, how many schools this year can say their first two games will be against SEC opponents? And Navy and Eastern Washington are no slouches. Plus, you open the MAC with two road games.
Campbell:It is the toughest schedule, no doubt about it. But we don’t talk much about, to be honest. We just focus on ourselves and the process it takes to get better. We don’t control the schedule. The only thing we can control is us. Our players will be excited to play schools like Florida and Missouri. In our conference, if you don’t show up, you will get beat. When you play opponents like Florida and Missouri right off the bat, if you don’t show up, not only will you get beat, you will get humiliated. That helps your focus. It’s very exciting to play the best of the best. We’ll find out a lot about where we are very early in the season.
At the end of the day, we need to work at getting better so that we can win a MAC Championship. To do that, we better be ready to come and play week-in and week-out, no matter who we are playing.