Coach: Matt Campbell (Fourth Year)
2015 Preseason MAC Media prediction: 1st (MAC West and MAC Championship Game winner).
► Can the Rockets avoid key injuries and/or find quality replacements in 2015?
► Can Toledo find a way to come out on the winning end against perennial (at least recently) MAC West champ Northern Illinois?
► Will junior quarterback Logan Woodside make the Rockets passing attack a devastating compliment to the already potent UT run game?
(CLICK READ MORE TO CONTINUE . . . )
► Will UT’s defense withstand potent opponent offenses, especially during a tough final month of the regular season?
► The first name that comes to mind when discussing Toledo football this year is Kareem Hunt. The junior earned First Team All-MAC honors after averaging an amazing 8.0 ypc and racking up 1,631 yards rushing for the season. His 163.1 yards per contest ranked third nationally. “I think Kareem’s best is still to come,” head coach Matt Campbell said.
► As good as Hunt is, he actually could find the going a little tougher this year. UT is replacing five starters along the offensive line. That rebuilding job could well be the Rockets’ biggest personnel challenge for 2015.
► The Rockets do have some depth at running back. Sophomore Terry Swanson filled in when Hunt was injured during a three-game stretch in the middle of the season. Swanson picked up 172 yards on 19 carries in a key 20-19 overtime win over Western Michigan. Damion Jones-Moore registered 103 yards rushing on 15 carries with two touchdowns in the GoDaddy Bowl. That added to Hunt’s 271 yards and five rushing scores.
► Due in part to injuries, Toledo had three different quarterbacks start at least one game in 2014. Senior Phillip Ely and junior Logan Woodside carried most of the load – Ely early in the campaign and Woodside for seven games later. Michael Julian started the critical Northern Illinois game, but he came out after suffering a concussion. Toledo was forced to use a fourth-string quarterback (Dwight Macon) and ultimately lost 27-24. That loss decided the West title, sending NIU to the title game, where it won another MAC crown.
► “We think highly of Logan and Phillip. They have both proven that they can win football games,” Campbell said. “We feel like we can win with either guy behind center.”
► Wide receiver is another strong area for the Rockets, who have two All-MAC receivers in the group. Senior Alonzo Russell, in fact, has a chance to become Toledo’s first four-time All-MAC wideout. The 6-4 receiver is capable of spectacular catches. He totaled 51 receptions for 770 yards with eight TDs last year. “He’s added polish to his game every year,” Campbell said. “By the end of his career, I think people will say he was one of the best receivers we’ve ever had at Toledo.”
Corey Jones, meanwhile, led UT receivers with 68 catches for 842 yards and five scores. The 5-8 speedster did his damage coming out of the slot.
With several other quality receivers available, the Rockets can get a lot of mileage out of the passing game.
► “Fortunately, we are blessed with as much talent and depth at both wide receiver and tight end as we have had since I’ve been here,” Campbell said.
► While the Toledo offense ranked first in scoring (36.6 ppg) last year, its defense was eighth (30.5 ppg). Suffice it to say a 58-34 loss at Cincinnati didn’t help. Then again, the 63-44 bowl win over Arkansas State certainly helped 2014 offensive scoring numbers. The Rockets defense fared better in conference only stats, rising to fourth in (23.2 ppg).
► UT ranked first in rush defense (116.2 ypg), but it was last in pass defense (291.7 ppg). Some of the latter probably owed to teams being forced to play catch up due to the Rockets high-scoring offense.
► Unlike on the offense side of the ball, Toledo returns four starters up front. It is a quality unit, with depth to back it all up. “It’s one of those areas we are really excited about,” Campbell said, adding, “We’ve got some other guys who haven’t played yet that we are also excited about. Great competition on the defensive line can only make us better.”
Defensive tackles Orion Jones and Treyvon Hester both earned All-MAC Second Team honors in 2014. Jones, a senior, had a team-high six sacks. Hester, a junior, registered 49 tackles, 9.5 TFL and a team-high 10 quarterback hurries.
Senior Chris Collins and sophomore Marquis Moore both have starting experience, giving UT nice depth inside.
Senior defensive end Trent Voss led all MAC linemen in tackles (77) last year and finished second in the conference in tackles for loss (15.0). His defensive MVP performance at the bowl game included 4.0 TFL and a fumble recovery/score on the first play from scrimmage. Senior Allen Covington started all 13 games in 2014, collecting 29 tackles, 4.0 TFL and eight quarterback hurries. As with the tackles, there is depth on the outside as well.
► The situation is different in the next line of defense as UT must replace veterans Junior Sylvestre (All-MAC First Team) and Ray Bush. They combined for 182 stops in 2014. Senior Chase Murdock is part of a group in competition for starting gigs.
“It’s going to be a battle at linebacker,” Campbell said. “We have a lot of experienced guys who now have the opportunity to step up. They will be pushed by some younger guys, who are ready to challenge for playing time.”
► Looking at the stats, UT’s secondary would seem to be a major area of concern. For what it is worth, that unit was decimated by injuries last year. Eight defensive backs saw playing time, with some getting extensive work. Better yet, former starting cornerbacks Cheatham Norrils and Cameron Cole are back after missing 2014 due to injuries and UAB transfer Roland Milligan is part of some talented newcomers to the backfield. Last year’s starters, Christian Dukes (62 tackles, 2 INTs) and Jordan Margin (26 stops) also return.
Milligan, who started all 13 games, and Chaz Whittaker are possible at strong safety. DeJuan Rogers (67 tackles in 2014) and Delando Johnson came to camp battling for the free safety spot.
“We need to improve in (the secondary), and I believe we will,” Campbell said. “We have as much talent as we’ve ever had back there.”
► The Rockets have been involved in numerous close games – often determining MAC West titles – over the last several years. Given the strength of several West division teams this year, a kick made or missed could determine who makes the MAC championship tilt. With so much on the line, UT hopes it can adequately replace Jeremiah Detmer, a three-time All-MAC kicker. Sophomore Samuel Vulcelich and freshman Jameson Vest were battling for the spot when camp opened. Junior Nick Ellis (MAC-worst 36.6 average) hopes to return as punter.
► Toledo opens the season with three home games in September. Stony Brook comes to town for the opener. After a tough road game against Arkansas, UT hosts Iowa State and Arkanasas State. Toledo bested the latter Jan. 4 in the GoDaddy Bowl game.
► The last five weeks on the schedule would test the mettle of any MAC team. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and the UMass Minutemen host UT Oct. 24. The Rockets then host Northern Illinois before road tests at Central Michigan and arch-rival Bowling Green. The Nov. 27 Friday finale at home against Western Michigan could decide the West. Toledo edged WMU by just one vote in the preseason MAC Media Poll. If a title is on the line, it could be a wild night at the Glass Bowl.
► “We obviously face another challenging schedule, but it is a big plus for our team and our fans to have seven home games,” Campbell said.
► Toledo returns 15 starters and 47 letter winners from its 2014 squad.
► UT was seventh in turnover margin (minus-3, miuus-0.23 per game). Toledo was second in red zone offense and 12th in red zone defense. The Rockets were third among MAC teams in third down conversions – trailing Western Michigan and Northern Illinois.