2013 Rocket Football Season Preview
Toledo has the Firepower For a MAC Championship Title Run
Toledo’s 2013 seniors have a lot to be proud of.
They are the class that has returned the Rockets to the elite of the Mid-American Conference. When they came in as freshmen in 2010, UT had just suffered through its third straight losing season. Fast forward to 2013, and all of that has changed. The Rockets have gone 26-13 in the past three years, with three winning seasons and three bowl appearances. Toledo’s MAC record over that span is a sparkling 20-4.
And yet the seniors’ biggest goal—and the goal of the entire football program—has yet to be reached. This class of Rockets won’t be completely satisfied until it hoists the MAC Championship trophy above its collective heads in Detroit’s Ford Field.
"At the end of the day, our goals remain the same," said UT head coach Matt Campbell, whose team opens up training camp on Aug. 1. "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."
Toledo definitely has the talent to reach the top in 2013. The Rockets return 16 starters, including an offense that is brimming with talent. Senior wide receiver/return specialist Bernard Reedy is among five All-MAC players lining up on offense. Reedy caught 88 passes and scored four times on special teams in 2012. Reedy is complemented at wide-out by sophomore Alonzo Russell, a 6-4 athlete who caught 56 passes as a freshman. In the backfield, senior David Fluellen rushed for 1,498 yards last year, despite missing one game and most of another due to injuries. And leading the troops up front are senior center Zac Kerin and junior guard Greg Mancz.
The key to the offense could very well be senior quarterback Terrance Owens, who has 17 starts to his credit over the last three years. Owens battled a pair of ankle injuries in the second half of 2012; he is healthy again and looking to repeat the monster season he had in 2011 when he set the MAC record by completing 72.2 percent of his passes.
The biggest question that remains is the defense. Campbell must find a way to adjust to the loss of eight starters, including the nation’s leading tackler in 2012, linebacker Dan Molls. On the plus side, the Rockets return six players who had at least 30 tackles in 2012, as well as a group of athletic and talented newcomers who could actually elevate the level of play on the defensive side of the ball. Top returnees include junior All-MAC cornerback Cheatham Norrils and senior defensive end Christian Smith.
"I really like the players we have on the defensive side of the ball," said Campbell. "This is a hungry group that has been waiting for their chance. I think people will be surprised at just how talented we are on defense this year."
The following is an overview of the Rockets as they head into the 2013 season:
For the first time since 2009, there will not be a battle for the starting quarterback position in the Rockets’ training camp. But don’t think for a minute that senior Terrance Owens won’t be competing hard during training camp.
Owens, who split time with Austin Dantin the past three seasons, is clearly the choice to lead Toledo’s offense. He has a terrific arm and is a dangerous runner. For his career, he has thrown 45 touchdowns and just 16 interceptions, while completing 64.3 percent of his passes.
So while the talented young quarterbacks backing up Owens may push him during training camp, the real competition will be Owens’ battle vs. the expectations he has created for himself. After a very solid three seasons as signal-caller, the stage is set for Owens to really come into his own as a senior.
"I think the young quarterbacks in our program will challenge him. But Terrance is not bothered by competition," said Campbell. "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."
Owens would probably like to improve upon his numbers from 2012 (2,705 yards, 61.4%, 14 TDs, eight INTs). He was hobbled by a mid-season ankle sprain, then suffered another one late in the year that knocked him out of the lineup. His health back to 100 percent, Owens is looking to return to the form that allowed him to complete a MAC-record 72.2 percent of his passes in 2011.
Backing up Owens at quarterback are true freshman Logan Woodside; junior Dwight Macon, who also doubles as a wide receiver; and redshirt freshman Brian Blackburn, who took reps at tight end during spring ball. Woodside graduated from high school last December and joined the Rockets for winter workouts. He played well enough last spring for the coaching staff to consider him for the No. 2 spot this fall. Macon is a great athlete with a strong arm who until now hasn’t had much experience throwing the ball. He split time at wide receiver and quarterback last spring, so it’s possible he may be used only in emergencies at QB in 2013. Blackburn, at 6-6, has the height that makes it easier to pick out his target but is still learning the subtleties of playing quarterback in college.
The ground attack in Toledo’s impressive offensive arsenal is led by senior running back David Fluellen. After two seasons as a back-up, Fluellen emerged in 2012, rushing for 1,498 yards and 12 touchdowns. His numbers would have been even higher if he hadn’t missed one game and much of two others due to injuries.
Three times Fluellen rushed for at least 200 yards on his way to earning first-team All-MAC honors. He was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top rusher and figures to be to a solid candidate for that honor again in 2013.
"David Fluellen is healthy and looks great," said Campbell. "He’s established himself as a premier running back, really one of the best in the country."
While Fluellen is known as a tough runner who can gain yardage inside or out, he is backed up by a trio of pure speedsters. Junior Cassius McDowell provides a good complement to Fluellen. McDowell (372 yards in 2012) is a quick runner who can get to the outside in a hurry. Redshirt freshmen Damian Jones-Moore and Marc Remy are also speedsters who looked impressive this past spring.
The Rockets’ bounty on offense extends to the wide receiver position, too. Senior speedster Bernard Reedy (88 receptions, six TDs) is a threat to go long every time he touches the ball. A true triple threat, Reedy earned first-team All-MAC honors at wide receiver and punt returner, as well as second-team all-league notice at kickoff returner. He returned three kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in 2012.
"It’s been great to see Bernard’s development since his freshman season," said Campbell. "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."
Joining Reedy in the receiving corps is sophomore Alonzo Russell (56 receptions, five TDs), a triple threat in his own right. At 6-4, he has the height to go up for balls, the strength to go over the middle and the speed to go deep. Russell, a third-team All-MAC pick in 2012, has the potential to be a dominating receiver. "Alonzo has big-play ability," said Campbell. "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."
Juniors Justin Olack (19 receptions) and Dwight Macon (18 catches), as well as senior James Green (eight receptions) give Toledo experience and depth at receiver. Sophomore Kishon Wilcher is an intriguing possibility, as well. A backup cornerback and special teams expert in 2011, Wilcher missed most of last year with an injury. Campbell would like to take advantage of Wilcher’s speed, and experimented with him at receiver last spring.
Toledo has experience at tight end, as well. Sophomore Alex Zmolik distinguished himself as a solid blocker last year, and two of his three receptions were for touchdowns. Junior Zac Rosenbauer is another good blocker who can play fullback in short-yardage situations, as can junior Dawalyn Harper. Redshirt freshmen Craig Runyan and Mike Ebert are also competing for playing time. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Blackburn may also see time at tight end.
Perhaps the biggest key to Toledo’s offensive success last season was the development of the offensive line. Four starters are back from that unit, including senior first-team All-MAC center Zac Kerin and third-team all-league junior guard Greg Mancz. Kerin is a candidate for the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center, as well for as the Outland Trophy as the country’s best down lineman.
Juniors Josh Hendershot and Jeff Myers are also back at left tackle and left guard, respectively. Only the right tackle position needs to be filled with new blood. Junior Chase Nelson (6-8, 335) and redshirt freshman Storm Norton (6-8, 310) are a pair of giants who will be battling it out for the position. Junior Robert Lisowski was a key reserve in 2012 and figures to be in the rotation again this year, either at center or at guard.
"If you would have asked me about the offensive line at this time last year, I would have said there were some question marks," said Campbell. "But now I think we are as good and as deep as we’ve ever been across our offensive front."
The depth Campbell speaks of will come from young players eager for some action, like sophomore Collin Perchinske and redshirt freshmen Ramond Marlowe, James Henry and Paul Perschon.
Once an area of concern, Toledo’s defense has made great strides in the past few years. Now the Rockets are faced with the challenge of replacing numerous key performers who were a big part of that resurgence.
All four players who started on the defensive line in Toledo’s final game last season are gone. But six other players who have either been starters or played extensively as reserves are back. Injuries that hampered the defense in 2012 could provide a silver lining this fall.
"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 is Toledo’s most experienced D-lineman. A part-time starter in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Smith became a full-time starter last year. He was leading the down-linemen in tackles when he went down with a season-ending injury in the fifth game of the season. He is healthy now and poised for a big season.
"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."
Smith is joined by a veteran at the other defensive end spot, senior Jayrone Elliott. Elliott had 31 tackles and one sack as a sophomore and 18 tackles and six sacks as a junior. Campbell feels Elliott is ready to break out in 2013.
Toledo has a number of other candidates at defensive end, most notably junior Ray Bush and sophomores Allen Covington and Kennan Gibbs. Bush is moving from linebacker, while Gibbs is coming back after missing all of 2012 due to injury.
Toledo’s most experienced inside lineman is senior Elijah Jones. Jones had 31 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss as part of the regular rotation as a junior. A pair of sophomores who saw some action last year—Orion Jones and Chris Collins—are expected to compete at the other defensive tackle spot. Sophomore junior college transfer Robert Zimmerman has the size (6-3, 325 pounds) that will automatically put him on the radar screen this fall.
At linebacker, the Rockets have a hole the size of 266 tackles to fill. That’s the number of stops that Dan Molls (166) and Robert Bell (100) combined for in 2012. Replacing those outgoing seniors would seem to be a daunting task, but Campbell is confident that his linebacking corps won’t miss a beat.
Part of the reason for Campbell’s optimism is the return of sophomore Trent Voss. By the end of his freshman year, Voss emerged as one of Toledo’s best defenders, finishing the season with 47 tackles.
"Trent can play inside or outside linebacker, but we will probably start him on the outside at the star position," said Campbell. "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."
Competing with Voss at outside linebacker are a pair of seniors, Vladimir Emilen (33 tackles in 2012) and Ethan Kagy.
The competition at "Mike" and "Will" inside linebacker positions will be fierce. Junior Sylvestre, a junior, is the most experienced returnee, totaling 49 tackles last season. Sophomore Chase Murdock (11 tackles) also looked good in limited action last year. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Jaylen Coleman, who was impressive last spring.
Toledo’s secondary also lost three starters from a year ago so the battle for playing time could extend into the season.
Junior Cheatham Norrils (74 tackles, two interceptions) earned third-team All-MAC honors at cornerback last year and figures to be a cornerstone of the defense in 2013. Said
Campbell, "Cheatham has the talent to be one of the better players in the conference. He just needs to work on his consistency."
Norrils will be challenged by sophomore Juwan Haynes (11 tackles) for the starting nod at one corner spot, while sophomore Chris Dukes (35 tackles) and junior Cameron Cole figure to be battling on the other side of the field. Sophomore Kishon Wilcher, who missed most of last season due to injury, is a strong candidate at cornerback—assuming he plays there. Wilcher spent time at wide receiver in the spring and may stay on the offensive side of the ball in 2013.
Senior Ross Madison (24 tackles) and junior Jordan Haden (16 tackles, two interceptions) are veteran candidates at strong safety. Youth may be the order of the day at free safety, where redshirt freshman D.J. Larkins and sophomore Chaz Whittaker will be vying for playing time.
"At safety, we don’t have a lot of experience but one guy who has played a lot is Ross Madison," said Campbell. "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."
Toledo’s special teams were a big plus in 2012 and should be key again this fall. Junior placekicker Jeremiah Detmer earned second-team All-MAC honors by connecting on 24-of-29 field goals in 2012. He also made his last 17 kicks in a row, and showed a big leg by producing 23 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Senior Vince Penza is a solid punter who is better than his 40.5 average indicates. Penza’s strength is his accuracy; 21 of his 58 punts were downed inside the 20, and opponents only managed to return 15 of his punts for an average of 7.2 yards per return.
On the receiving end of special teams, Toledo is blessed with one of the best return men in the country, senior Bernard Reedy. Reedy scored four special teams touchdowns last season (three kickoff, one punt), and ranked in the top 25 nationally in yards per return in both categories. Another speedster, junior Cassius McDowell, is back for kickoff returns. Campbell also wants to take a look at a number of young legs at kickoff and punt returns during training camp.
In its first 92 seasons of playing football, the University of Toledo never played a school from the Southeastern Conference. That will change in a big way this fall.
The Rockets will begin their 2013 football season playing not one, but two games against SEC foes. Toledo opens up with road contests at Florida and at Missouri, undoubtedly the toughest opening assignment in school history.
"Our schedule is very challenging, particularly at the start of the season, but we are looking forward to it," said Campbell. "Not only do we travel to Florida and Missouri, but we open at home against a very good Eastern Washington team (Sept. 14), then play two conference road games at Central Michigan and Ball State. I know our players will rise to meet the challenge."
Toledo’s season opener will come on Aug. 31 against a Florida team that finished the season with an 11-2 record, ranked No. 9 in the AP poll and No. 10 in the USA Today coaches poll. The Rockets then travel to Missouri where they will face former UT head coach Gary Pinkel’s Tigers. Pinkel coached the Rockets from 1991-2000, compiling a 73-37-3 mark. He was inducted into UT’s Varsity ‘T’ Hall of Fame in 2009. Missouri was 5-7 in 2012, its first in the SEC and first losing season since 2004.
The Rockets’ other two non-conference foes are also formidable. Eastern Washington was 9-2 last year and advanced to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. The Eagles were FCS champions in 2010. Navy was 8-5 in 2012 and earned a berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
MAC home games include Western Michigan (Oct. 5–Homecoming), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 2), Buffalo (Nov. 12) and Northern Illinois (Nov. 20). The NIU game will be televised on ESPN2, while the Buffalo game will be on either ESPNU or ESPN3.
Conference road games are at Central Michigan (Sept. 21), Ball State (Sept. 28), Bowling Green (Oct. 26) and Akron (Nov. 29). The Akron game will be carried on either ESPNU or ESPN3.