Toledo, OH - Here's a question. Can a college football team be on the verge of a breakout championship season and still face a rebuilding challenge?
Consider the case of the Toledo Rockets. In 2011, UT went 9-4, won a bowl game and came within a whisker of winning the Mid-American Conference West Division title. The Rockets return not one, but two accomplished quarterbacks, a wide receiver who was the Most Valuable Player in the bowl game and a healthy supply of standouts on the defensive side of the ball.
Toledo must replace seven starters on offense, including an All-American wide receiver/kick returner, a two-time All-MAC running back and three starters on the offensive line. Six starters on defense are gone, too.
No matter how you evaluate the state of the Rockets, Toledo head coach Matt Campbell said his team's goals remain unchanged.
"At Toledo your goals and expectations are always going to be playing for a MAC Championship, winning a bowl game and getting the team GPA to as close to 3.0 as possible," said Campbell, who enters his first full season as the Rockets' head coach. "Those goals have been set in stone for the last three years, and it's something we still aspire to. We have not reached all those goals yet, and I think it's something that is really motivating us this off-season."
Campbell pointed out that a team cannot strictly be evaluated by the number of returning starters.
"One thing we have been able to do here is play a lot of kids, whether as starters or in critical game situations," Campbell said. "We have a wealth of experience, guys who have played a lot of football and have been extremely productive, whether as starters or in important reserve roles."
For the most part, Toledo's experience is evenly distributed throughout the squad. The exception would be quarterback, where the Rockets are blessed with two signal-callers-junior Terrance Owens and senior Austin Dantin-who both ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency in 2011.
Other standouts on offense include junior wide receiver Bernard Reedy, the 2011 Military Bowl MVP who caught 40 passes last year; junior David Fluellen, who has rushed for more than 700 yards in two seasons; junior Zac Kerin, a second-team All-MAC center; and sophomore Greg Mancz, who earned Freshman All-America honors at guard.
The defense has starters or key reserves back at just about every position. Leaders on that side of the ball include three seniors, linebacker Dan Molls (2010 third-team All-MAC), defensive end T.J. Fatinikun (two-time All-MAC selection) and strong safety Jermaine Robinson (three interceptions in 2012).
Questions remain to be answered, of course. That will always be the case when you graduate 13 starters, including an NFL-caliber wide receiver like Eric Page. Some of those questions might even be answered this spring. But as it stands now, it's not a stretch to say that the Rockets have more than enough talent to challenge for a MAC West title. Putting it all together is the challenge for Campbell and his staff.
The following is an overview of the Rockets as they head into 2012 spring practice:
Any college football coach would love to have one returning quarterback ranked in the top 25 in passing efficiency, much less two. Toledo has such a bounty at signal-caller in senior Austin Dantin and junior Terrance Owens.
For the third consecutive spring, Dantin and Owens will be fighting for playing time as UT's main quarterback. How the battle will all pan out by next fall is anybody's guess, but over the past two seasons at least, they have split time pretty evenly. Owens has 393 passing attempts over that time span, while Dantin has 380. Owens' incredible production over the final three games of 2011 might lead some Rocket fans to assume that the two-quarterback system is over at UT. Campbell, however, said the position is still up for grabs.
"We have always said that going into each part of the season, we leave it up to competition to decide who is rising to the challenge," said Campbell. "The thing we've seen with Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens is that they both have been put into pressure situations and both have been successful. It will be a joy to watch those two go to battle again. At the end of the day, it makes our football team better and I think those two understand that."
Dantin and Owens were splitting time pretty evenly last season until Dantin went out of the lineup late in the season due to concussion symptoms. Owens led Toledo to three victories in Dantin's absence, completing an amazing 79.5 percent (70-of-88) of his passes for 752 yards, seven touchdowns with no interceptions. For the season, Owens finished sixth in the nation in passing efficiency, completing a MAC-record 72.2 percent of his passes for 2,022 yards and 18 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Dantin was no slouch, either. A starter for the Rockets' first 10 games, Dantin completed 64.9 percent of his throws, racking up 1,404 yards and 15 TDs with only four picks. He finished 21st in the country in passing efficiency, marking the first time in NCAA history that one school had two QBs rank in the top 25 in passing efficiency in the same year.
Backing up Toledo's dynamic duo is sophomore Dwight Macon, who didn't play much as a redshirt freshman but has received rave reviews from the Toledo coaching staff.
The favorite target for Toledo's quarterbacks for the past three seasons was unquestionably Eric Page. Page, who caught a MAC-record 306 passes as a Rocket, opted to enter the NFL Draft following his junior season, leaving a gaping hole in Toledo's offense. The top candidate to help fill the gap actually had his coming-out party in Page's final game as a collegian. Junior Bernard Reedy caught three touchdown passes in UT's 42-41 victory over Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl, earning game MVP honors. Reedy had 40 receptions in 2011 and will have the opportunity to catch far more than that next fall.
Other veterans returning to the receiving corps include senior Julian Bellinger, junior James Green and sophomores Justin Olack and Cassius McDowell.
Campbell said that senior Cordale Scott will move from wide receiver to tight end this spring. Scott will be battling senior Colby Kratch and sophomore Zach Rosenbauer for playing time.
The Rockets have big shoes to fill at running back, as well. Gone are Adonis Thomas, a two-time All-MAC selection, and Morgan Williams, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008. But junior David Fluellen, who rushed for 493 yards last season in a reserve role, is back, as are other candidates.
Fluellen was the starter in three games last year and gained a career-high 93 yards in a 28-21 victory over Bowling Green. A solid 6-0, 215 pounds, Fluellen will have a chance to be Toledo's No. 1 rusher this fall.
"I think he's competing to be a lead back on this team," said Campbell. "I think he's shown the ability to do that. At times the past two years we had three guys splitting the carries, and David was one of them. I think it'll be fun to watch David grow as a tailback in our system."
Battling Fluellen for playing time this spring will be senior David Pasquale and junior Darius Reeves. Pasquale, a solid 6-2, 232 pounds, gives Toledo another big back. He rushed for 59 yards on 11 carries as a wildcat quarterback in 2011, often in short-yardage situations.
Toledo's offensive line will feature three new starters in 2012, but that doesn't mean the Rockets won't be experienced. Junior center Zac Kerin and sophomore right guard Greg Mancz were the starters on an O-line that powered the Rockets' offense last year. But gone from that group are a pair of tackles-Mike VanDerMeulen and John Morookian-who combined for 98 starts over four years. Campbell is counting on some key reserves from last season to step into their shoes.
At the top of Campbell's list is 6-6, 300-pound right tackle A.J. Lindeman. Lindeman, a senior, played extensively in the rotation last year. Now he will be needed to play a much bigger role on the team. The leading candidate at left tackle is sophomore Josh Hendershot, who saw extensive action in 2011 and could also play guard. Two other top candidates for playing time at tackle are a pair of redshirt freshmen, Ethan Wirth and Colin Perchinske.
The competition at guard will be just as fierce. Mancz, a Freshman All-American in 2011, looks solid at right guard. Sophomore Jeff Myers was a regular in the rotation last year and will also be fighting for a starting role. Other players to watch this spring are sophomores Rob Lisowski and Chase Nelson.
Kerin, a second-team All-MAC pick as a sophomore last year, is penciled in at center. He will be challenged for playing time by junior Erik Carlson.
Toledo's defense has made significant strides over the past few years, thanks in part to its improved depth. Getting so many players into the lineup over the last two years should pay dividends this season. Despite losing six starters on defense, Campbell is confident his team is well-stocked on the defensive side of the ball in 2012.
"From a defensive standpoint, we have a wealth of experience, guys who have played a lot of football and have been extremely productive," said Campbell. "You get a guy like (senior safety) Mark Singer back in the lineup and add a couple of transfers who sat out last year, and it gives us a defense with a lot of experience. We also have a wealth of guys who are looking to make their mark in our program, guys who have had small windows of opportunity or guys who have been chomping at the bit to have an opportunity."
Nowhere is that depth more noticeable than on the defensive line. The Rockets had enough depth on the line last year to survive the loss to three starters to injury and still win the Military Bowl. Depth will once again be the key word for the defensive line in 2012 as eight returning players have at least some experience.
Leading the way is two-time All-MAC defensive end T.J. Fatinikun. Fatinikun, a senior, was enjoying an outstanding junior season when he went down with an arm injury midway through the year, missing the final six games. He still tied for the team lead with 7.5 tackles for loss and earned third-team All-MAC honors.
Joining Fatinikun at defensive end is junior Christian Smith (27 tackles, 5.5 TFL), a starter in six games in 2012 who came on strong toward the end of the year. Another junior, Jayrone Elliott, is also back. Elliott was a key reserve in 2011 and made the game-saving play in Toledo's 42-41 win over Air Force in the Military Bowl by forcing a fumble on a two-point conversion attempt with less than a minute left to play.
Senior Hank Keighley, sophomore Grant Pleasant and redshirt freshman Keenen Gibbs are all solid candidates for playing time at defensive end who will be eager to show what they can do this spring.
The defensive tackle spot is also loaded with experience and talent. Junior Elijah Jones (23 tackles, 3.0 TFL) saved his best for last, making a career-high five tackles in a clutch performance in the Military Bowl. A pair of experienced seniors, Danny Farr and Phil Lewis, are also back. Farr stepped in and made three tackles in the Military Bowl when both starting tackles were injured on the same play in the first half. Lewis is a junior college transfer who is now in his third season in the program. Junior Ben Pike, who had five sacks as a defensive end in passing situations last year, will also see some time at tackle this spring.
The inside linebacker position has depth and experience, as well. A pair of talented seniors, Dan Molls and Robert Bell, will help lead the defense. Molls finished 10th in the nation with 143 tackles in 2010, earning third-team All-MAC honors. The early portion of his junior season was derailed, however, by a leg injury that caused him to miss six games. He returned to play the final five games, averaging nearly 11 tackles per contest. Bell was solid all season long, finishing second on the team with 78 tackles and forcing a team-best four fumbles.
Three sophomore linebackers saw significant playing time as freshmen in 2011. Ray Bush (18 tackles), Dawalyn Harper (nine tackles) and James Gordon (eight tackles) are all back to challenge for spots in the playing rotation.
Toledo's star linebacker position is a hybrid linebacker/safety position that requires solid tackling skills combined with the ability to cover speedy receivers. Two players will be battling it out at the position this spring, junior Vladimir Emilien and sophomore Junior Sylvestre. Emilien sat out last season after transferring from Michigan. Sylvestre had 19 tackles on special teams and as a reserve in 2011.
Toledo's secondary has a chance to be one of the strongest components of the defense this season if the Rockets can fill the holes left by the departure of its two starting cornerbacks, Desmond Marrow and Taikwon Paige. Helping ease that loss is a wealth of experience at safety.
Senior Jermaine Robinson, a three-year starter at strong safety, is coming off his finest season as a Rocket. Robinson had a career-high three interceptions in 2011, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He also had 55 tackles, 6.5 TFL, two forced fumbles and broke up nine passes.
Another senior, Mark Singer, is back for his fifth season after sitting out last year with a shoulder injury. Singer had 73 tackles and two interceptions in 13 starts at free safety in 2010.
Campbell said that four other safeties-juniors Ross Madison and Ethan Kagy, sophomore Cheatham Norrils and redshirt freshman Noah Key-will be competing this spring. Madison has the most experience, making 25 tackles as a reserve last year.
The cornerback position will provide an interesting battleground this spring. The player with the most experience is senior Byron Best, who played cornerback in 2009 and 2010 before moving to star linebacker last year. Best has started 14 games as Rocket, 12 at cornerback. His best season came in 2010 when he had 33 tackles and broke up three passes.
Other candidates at cornerback are sophomores Keith Suggs, Kishon Wilcher and Jordan Haden, along with redshirt freshman Chris Dukes. Wilcher had 28 tackles as a freshman and distinguished himself as a gunner on special teams. Suggs started three games, making12 tackles. Haden is a transfer from Florida who will be seeing his first action as a collegian in 2012.
Sophomore Jeremiah Detmer was Toledo's kickoff and long field-goal kicker in 2011. Now it's his chance to take over all the kicking duties. Detmer will be pushed by sophomore Clay Simpkins, as well as by junior college transfer Brad Dunavant for kickoffs only.
Dunavant, a sophomore, is the leading challenger for junior Vince Penza's job as punter. Penza averaged just 37.8 yards per punt last year but came through with consecutive clutch punts in the fourth quarter of Toledo's win in the Military Bowl.
Toledo lost one of the best kick return players in the nation when Eric Page opted to turn pro. Leading candidates to fill those big shoes are juniors Bernard Reedy and David Fluellen, though many others are likely to get a shot.
The Mid-American Conference schedule has not been released yet. Toledo's non-conference slate includes home games with Coastal Carolina (Sept. 22) and Cincinnati (Oct. 20), and road games at Arizona (Sept. 1) and Wyoming (Sept. 8).