Toledo, OH - When Tim Beckman assumed the head coaching position at the University of Toledo a year ago, he emphasized that "competiveness" would be his mantra. It is simple, he said. His team would compete for everything.
One year later, nothing has changed. From strength-training, to off-season workouts, to practice, to academics, to personal conduct, even to team bowling outings, the Rockets still compete for everything.
"We're sticking to our plan," said Beckman. "We came in here in December of 2008 with a championship plan. It covers every part of our student-athlete's life-social, academic and football. We know it will build champions."
Beckman's Rockets took a step in the right direction in 2009, improving by two wins over the previous season. Just as important, perhaps, is the changed mindset of the team. There is a renewed aura of confidence among the players. These Rockets feel it is only a matter of time before they return the UT football program to its stature as one of the powers of the Mid-American Conference.
"We all share the vision of taking this program to another level," said Beckman. "Our players are heading in the right direction, both on and off the football field."
Beckman is very enthusiastic about the group of players he has assembled this spring. Among the 14 returning starters from last year are second-team All-MAC wide receiver Eric Page and third-team All-MAC linebacker Archie Donald. Eleven senior starters from 2009 have departed, leaving opportunities for talented young players to make a statement this spring.
"I think you will see great competition at every position," said Beckman. "Great competition in the spring will only help us get better next fall."
The following is an overview of the Rockets as they head into 2010 spring practice:
Sticking with the theme of "competitiveness," the Toledo offense will see intense competition at two key positions, quarterback and running back. For the time being, at least, there are four serious candidates at each position.
Vying for the starting quarterback position vacated by four-year starter Aaron Opelt will be sophomore Austin Dantin, senior Alex Pettee, sophomore David Pasquale and redshirt freshman Terrence Owens.
Dantin played in seven games as a true freshman last year, starting three. He completed 66 percent of his passes and led the Rockets to victory against Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan. He also proved to be nimble on his feet. Pettee also saw duty, mostly in a 40-24 loss to Temple in which he completed 29-of-47 passes for 265 yards. Pasquale was used strictly as a "Wildcat" QB, running for 78 yards on 24 carries.
"Austin Dantin could be said to have an edge because he played the most last year. He has proved he can be a leader," said Beckman. "Alex Pettee also proved he can come in and play. David Pasquale will get a chance to throw the ball this spring. Having the Fetterman Training Center to throw in this winter will really help David. He can throw the ball. But he's also a 238-pound guy who can run. Terrence Owens is a guy nobody knows about. He's a taller guy and he's put on some weight. He's up to about 190 now from about 165 pounds in high school. He's had a good winter and he's ready to compete."
Even though there is no clear No. 1 candidate at running back, Beckman feels this is the team's strongest position on offense due to its quality depth. Junior Morgan Williams, who has rushed for nearly 1,500 yards over the past two seasons, will be pushed by a trio of talented players. Junior Adonis Thomas, sophomore Jake Walker and redshirt freshman Darius Reeves will all get a chance to showcase themselves this spring.
Thomas rushed for 151 yards on 5.6 yards per carry in 2009, while Walker rushed for 67 yards as a freshman in 2008 and voluntarily redshirted last fall.
"The running back position is probably the biggest strength of our team and maybe our most competitive position," said Beckman. "We have four guys who are competing for playing time, and any one of them could end up being a starter. Morgan Williams has great quicks, great speed and good hands. Adonis Thomas has great speed. He's had a great winter. Jake Walker is a tough guy, very hard-nosed. Darius Reeves didn't get a chance to play last year because of injury but he's very talented. He could be a factor."
Depth could be an issue at receiver. But there is no doubt about the talent of sophomore Eric Page. Page made a huge impact as a freshman, leading the nation's newcomers with 82 receptions and 1,159 receiving yards. He also led the Rockets in kickoff and punt return average. He was named Freshman All-America by numerous outlets, and also earned second-team All-MAC honors.
"Eric is ahead of his age for how he understands the game," said Beckman. "He always knows where he's supposed to be heading on the field. He doesn't have blazing speed but he has good football speed. He's very competitive. He doesn't always show it but he is. He does not like to lose or give anything less than maximum effort."
Opportunities abound for Toledo's other returning receivers, such as juniors Kenny Stafford (14 receptions in 2009) and Tim Cortazzo, sophomore Julian Bellinger and redshirt freshman Ed Williams. James Green, a true freshman, joined the team in January, as did Illinois transfer Cordale Scott, who is still waiting on word from the NCAA on his apppeal for immediate eligibility.
The top candidates at tight end are junior Danny Noble (26 receptions), sophomores Justin Jones and Jared Strait, as well as true freshman Gerard Atkins, who joined the team in Janaury.
"Danny Noble had a very good sophomore season," said Beckman. "He runs extremely well so he can be a tight end/wide receiver threat. He also had a great winter, so we expect as lot from him. Gerard is a true freshman, but as an early enrollee he has the advantage of having 15 practices before the rest of the freshman class gets here. That can be a huge advantage."
The offensive line is Toledo's most experienced position, with four returning starters from a line that keyed the No. 16 offense in the nation in 2009. Leading the way is senior center Kevin Kowalski, who moved to the middle of the line last season after two seasons as the starter at right guard. Kowalski quickly established himself as the leader of the o-line in 2009, a role he is likely to continue this fall.
Joining Kowalski are three other returning starters: senior guard Nate Cole, along with junior tackles Mike VanDerMeulen and John Morookian. Others battling for playing time this spring include junior Phillipkeith Manley, sophomores Fadi Farha and A.J. Linderman, and redshirt freshmen Erik Carlson and Zac Kerin. True freshman Robert Lisowski, who joined the team in January, will also be competing this spring.
"We have four offensive linemen who have played since they were freshmen," said Beckman. "They have a lot of games under their belt. We're definitely looking for leadership from them to help make us a successful offensive football team."
Change is coming to the Rockets' defense, both in attitude and personnel.
"We need to change the image and the attitude of the defense," said Beckman. "The first thing we can do as coaches is bring in the players that can help us. I think we have done that."
True, Toledo lost five defensive starters from 2009, including a probable NFL draft pick, safety Barry Church. But 23 letterwinners return on defense, including three defensive backs who started as true freshmen. Also, four newcomers joined the team in January, three of whom are junior college transfers, and Diauntae Morrow, a junior safety who transferred from Iowa, will be eligible this fall.
The defensive backfield could have the most interesting battles this spring. Sophomores Byron Best (20 tackles) and Daxton Swanson (31 tackles) held down the all-important cornerback slots as true freshman in 2009. Swanson will have only limited contact this spring as he recovers from off-season surgery. Challenging for the corner positions will be junior college transfer Taikwon Paige and senior Desmond Marrow. Paige comes in with solid credentials from Georgia Military College, while Marrow has played well in his UT career but has often been sidelined with injuries.
"Paige had a great winter. It will be interesting to see how he does this spring," said Beckman. "Des had the best winter on our team. He worked hard to come back from his injury (missed 2009 season). If he can stay healthy, he could really help us."
Toledo's defense features three safeties, including Church's "star" position, a safety/linebacker hybrid. Candidates for that slot include junior Isaiah Ballard (23 tackles), senior Drey'Lon Pree and junior college transfer Charles Rancifer. Ballard was the Rockets' special teams MVP in 2009. One of those three players likely will shift over to one of the deep safety positions, competing with sophomore Jermaine Robinson (58 tackles, 6.0 TFL), a starter as a true freshman in 2009, and junior Mark Singer (16 tackles).
The linebacking corps is led by senior Archie Donald, a third-team All-MAC selection in 2009. Donald has led the Rockets in tackles in each of the past two seasons, including 116 last year. He will be joined in competition by sophomores Dan Molls (43 tackles) and Robert Bell (12 tackles), as well as senior Terrell Willis, who has played linebacker and defensive end throughout his career.
The defensive line has about a dozen candidates for four positions, including five players who sat out as redshirts in 2009: redshirt freshmen Ben Pike, Christian Smith and Ben Steele, along with juniors Johnnie Roberts, and Hank Keighley. "We feel these guys have really benefited from sitting out a year," said
Beckman. "It's a position where a lot of guys need a year to get physically ready to play at this level."
Vying for playing time at defensive tackle are juniors Roberts, Malcolm Riley and Johnathan Lamb; junior college transter Phil Lewis; sophomore Danny Farr; and Pike.
"Roberts could have helped us last year but we felt he needed to learn a little more," said Beckman. "Phil Lewis is a guy who will help us if he learns fast. Ben Pike could end being our best inside lineman. He's very strong and hard-nosed. He weighed about 230 in high school and he's up to close to 270 now. He could be up to 280 by next fall. It will be interesting to see what (converted offensive lineman) Danny Farr can do. He's about 290 and gives us a little more beef in there."
About the same number of players are competing for the two defensive end positions. The leading candidates are seniors Alex Johnson and Douglas Westbrook, along with sophomore T.J. Fatinikun. Westbrook had 24 tackles and 8.0 TFL in 2009 while Johnson added 22 tackles and 3.0 sacks in 2009. Fatinikun (20 tackles, 2.0 sacks) made great progress as a true freshman and is improving rapidly. Other players vying for playing time are juniors Hank Keighley and Damien McIntosh, as well as redshirt freshmen Christian Smith and Ben Steele.
"Alex Johnson is our most proven guy on the line. He's a good pass rusher and does a good job holding down his edge," said Beckman. "T.J. Fatinikun played very well as a true freshman. He's gotten bigger. He could be special. Douglas Westbrook has a lot of experience and had a very good winter. Hank Keighley redshirted last year and will definitely be competing for playing time. Christian Smith, Ben Steele and Damien McIntosh will all have a chance to play."
Beckman is confident that special teams will be one of the most improved areas for the Rockets in 2009. Both kicking positions, as well as the return positions, will see intense competition this spring.
Four-year placekicker Alex Steigerwald is gone, leaving a battle between senior Bret Brodbeck and junior Ryan Casano, who missed most of last season due to injuries. Junior Bill Claus (37.4 avg.) is back at punter but he will be pushed by resshirt freshman Vince Penza. Junior Colin McHugh, a two-year starter at long snapper, will be competing with redshirt freshman Matt Wall.
Various players will have an opportunity to return kickoffs and punts this spring. The most experienced returners are sophomore Eric Page, who led the team with 25.4 yards pedr attempt on kickoffs and 10.8 on punts, and fellow sophomore Julian Bellinger, who averaged 17.4 yards per return on kickoffs.