Toledo (7-5 overall)
5-3 MAC West (T-3rd)
Head Coach: Matt Campbell
2014 MAC Media Preseason (1st MAC West)
When a team enters a season with a major question at quarterback and is still the media pick to win its division, it speaks to the depth and quality of the program.
The Toledo Rockets are such a team. They enter 2014 on a familiar mission: Find a way to win a MAC West title. Perennial champ and Rockets nemesis Northern Illinois, ironically, enters this season with some of the same issues. The Huskies, in fact, are replacing a Heisman Trophy candidate in Jordan Lynch. Both teams, however, have significant strengths in other areas. Both teams are good enough to make their new starting QB successful – one way or another.
The Rockets have been knocking at the title door for years. After stumbling in 2013 and missing a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, UT’s challenge is simple: Can they find a way to get through that door?
Toledo took a pair of pretty big hits to the backfield with graduation. One was two-time All-MAC First Team running back David Fluellen, who amassed 1,121 rushing yards last season despite missing four games due to injury. Another departure was quarterback Terrance Owens. A starter for much of his four years at UT, Owens earned All-MAC Third Teams honors after completing 60.1 percent of his passes for 2,230 yards and 18 TDs in 2013.
Two other significant personnel losses for the offense were center Zac Kerin and wide receiver Bernard Reedy. Both were All-MAC Second Team selections.
Except for the question at quarterback, there seem to be some quick answers for the other departures.
The running back position is a good example of such answers. “We are blessed at the running back position,” head coach Matt Campbell said. “We have three or four guys we would be very comfortable putting out there.”
Among them is sophomore Kareem Hunt (5-11, 215). He averaged 6.3 ypc last year, totaling 866 yards and six touchdown. He was a key contributor while filling in during Fluellen’s injuries and broke 100 yards rushing in five of the Rockets final six outings.
“Kareem is a complete back,” Campbell said. “He can run, catch the ball and block – all at a high level. He just needs to get bigger, stronger and faster. If he does that, he could really make an impact here.”
Another sophomore, Damion Jones-Moore (5-7, 190) is a speedster who averaged 7.2 yards while rushing for 267 yards and five touchdowns in a limited roll during 2013.Marc Remy and senior Ricky Pringle are also in the mix.
Fullback Zac Rosenbauer (6-2, 255, Sr) is no small part in the running game's success, particularly in short yardage situations.
>>> Among the returning receivers, junior Alonzo Russell has already earned two All-MAC honors. "He's been an impact player from the moment he got here and has continued to make great strides as a receiver," Campbell said.
Seniors Dwight Macon and Justin Olack are available, although the former is coming off a shoulder injury. Bigger contributions by either or both would help the cause. Speedy junior Kishon Wichter (5-7, 180) could also be a productive target if he can steer clear of injuries.
"Kishon Wichter is by far the fastest player in our program," Campbell said. "We're happy we decided to move him to wide receiver (from defensive back). His progress was hampered by a hamstring injury, but he's worked hard this off-season to become a better player."
>>> As for quarterback, three players entered fall camp in the hunt for a starting gig. Junior Phillip Ely, sophomore Logan Woodside and redshirt freshman Michael Julian are part of the competition.
"We have three quarterbacks with different abilities, experiences and intangibles," Campbell said. " All three need to be ready to play. We feel we can win with any of them."
Ely sat out last season as a redshirt after transferring from Alabama. He was possibly shaking off some of the rust when he went 17 of 30 for 220 yards and two scores in the spring game.
>>> All of the offense revolves around an offensive line stocked with veterans. Even with the loss of Kerin, the line is primed for success.
Greg Mancz (6-5, 300, Sr) and Jeff Meyers had shoulder surgery in the off-season, but they were expected to be ready for UT's opener. Mancz, considered to be one of the best Toledo linemen in a decade, could move into the center spot or line up at guard.
"I don't know what (former Rocket and New England Patriot) Nick Kaczur and John Greco were like when they were here, but I think (Greg) is that caliber of a lineman," Campbell said.
Josh Henderson (6-8, 335) should be at one tackle while Chase Nelson returns as a starter.
According to Campbell, the line has depth and flexibility to go along with its talent.
"We could be playing as many as 10 or 11 guys," Campbell said of the offensive line situation.
There is also plenty of depth along the defensive line. Trevon Hester earned All-MAC Third Team honors last year as a freshman and will anchor the middle.
There is a need to replace DE Jayrone Elliott, who led the team with 140 tackles and 9.0 sacks in 2013.
>>> The strongest area on defense - and maybe the team as a whole - might be at linebacker. Three players have the potential to be All-MAC selections at season's end. Joining Junior Sylvester (6-0, 222, Sr) are juniors Trent Voss and Chase Murdock.
Sylvester finished second in the league with 118 tackles, helping him earn All-MAC First Team honors. Murdock recorded 109 hits and Voss shined, as well, until an injury sidelined him at mid-season. Sophomore Jaylen Coleman is highly regarded and could actually work his way into a starting role.
"It's great to build a defense from the middle, and we are fortunate to have that," Campbell said.
The secondary also has quite a bit of experience, too, but senior corner Cheatham Norris (Third Team All-MAC, 2013) could be out indefinitely due to recent illness. Cameron Cole does return at one corner.
Junior Chaz Whitaker recorded 45 tackles from the safety spot and led the team with two interceptions last year. However, senior Jordan Haden shook off some injuries to finish the campaign as a starter at safety.
Toledo is again blessed with the services of Jeremiah Detmer - one of college football's premier kickers. The 2013 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year converted 19 of 20 field goals and has made 36 of 37 since missing a 52-yarder vs. Western Michigan back in October of 2012. He also registered 38 touchbacks on kickoffs last season.
"I don't think there is a better kicker in the country right now than Jeremiah Detmer," Campbell said.
In a pinch, Detmer can fill in at punter, but the Rockets are working on another solution for that spot. With Reedy gone, UT will also need to find suitable returners.
Even with the loss of QB Owens and other highly productive players, the Rockets return a ton of talent. In a typical scenario, UT could again battle with Northern Illinois for the MAC West title. The preseason media poll gives Toledo the edge, but until somebody dethrones NIU. The two teams will meet Nov. 11 in DeKalb.
The two subplots for UT this year are:
1. The quarterback position.
2. Defensive improvement/consistency.
Giving up 31 points to Akron in the season finale last year (a 31-29 UT loss) likely cost the Rockets a bowl appearance. They gave up 35 and 41 to NIU and Buffalo, respectively, in the previous two weeks. Overall, UT finished in a tie with Akron for scoring defense (28.6 ppg). The Rockets were 10th in total defense (421.8 ypg) and pass defense (251.3 ypg).