The following is part of a MAC Reporter Online series previewing the 2016 outlook for each MAC school. Stats are for all games, unless otherwise noted.
TEAM: Toledo Rockets
2015 RECORD: 10-2, 6-2 MAC (part of four-way tie for first in the West)
HEAD COACH: Jason Candle (1st year)
MAC MEDIA PRESEASON POLL RANK: 2nd in MAC West
The Toledo Rockets appeared in five of the first eight Mid-American Conference championship games. The last, however, was in 2004, when UT bumped off Miami, 35-27.
No doubt there has been a stream of talent going through the program. Likewise, there have been some pretty good head coaches along the way (e.g. Nick Saban in 1990). In fact, the Rockets are now on their fourth head coach in nine years – not because of bad football, but because of good football.
The latest HC is Jason Candle, who replaces Matt Campbell (now at Iowa State). Once again, there is plenty of talent on hand, and . . .
After once again getting oh-so-close to a MAC Championship game appearance in 2015 (coming up short in a four-way tiebreaker), Toledo’s task is to get over the hump. Since the West is again loaded with contenders, it likely comes down to the Rockets winning their “key” games.
BIG PICTURE STAT OVERVIEW
Scoring offense: 3rd (35.0 ppg)
Scoring defense: 1st (20.8 ppg)
Total offense: 3rd (460.0 ypg)
Total defense: 4th (374.8 ypg)
Turnover margin: 3rd (+8/0.67 per game)
Typically, the Rockets should be strong up front again this season. Four of seven returning starters on offense will pave the way. Senior left tackle Storm Norton (First Team All-MAC in 2015) anchors what should again be a very effective unit.
Toledo ranked first in rushing among MAC teams with 207.9 ypg last year, and there is every reason to believe it will be right back at or near the top this time. The Rockets have a double warhead in Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson. Both were Second Team All-MAC members last year.
Hunt (6-1, 225, Sr) battled injury, but saw action in nine games, eclipsing 100 yards in five contests. He totaled 973 yards (5.5 ypc) and scored 12 TDs. A potential NFL draft choice, Hunt is ready to go for his final season. "I'm honestly the healthiest I've been since probably the beginning of my sophomoe season, and I am excited about that," he said. "I actually cut a little bit of weight, and I'm feeling good."
Lookout if the sophomore season is a barometer of this campaign. He gained 1,631 rushing yards and registered 16 TDs in 2014
Swanson (5-10, 200, Jr), meanwhile, added 923 yards 6.5 ypc) and tallied seven touchdowns. According to Hunt, there is even more after that. “Honestly, I feel like we’ve got a four-headed monster (at running back),” he said. “They all bring a little something to the table.
Of course, it’s not like the Rockets aren’t going to pass the ball. They ranked fifth among MAC teams in pass offense last year, averaging 253 ypg. Phillip Ely, who completed 56.1 percent of his throws, good for 2,965 yards and 23 TDs against 10 interceptions, is gone. However, entering the picture again is Logan Woodside. He was a starter back in 2014, throwing for 2,263 yards and 19 touchdowns. The junior redshirted last year.
Receivers Cody Thompson and Corey Jones are back after significant contributions in 2015. Thompson, a junior, owned 37 receptions for 825 yards. Jones (Sr) caught 55 balls for 577 yards. Both tallied five TDs.
The defensive unit had a bit more turnover, returning four starters. Two of those are at the linebacker level, so there will be plenty of new faces up front and along the back end. Candle, however, feels there is talent to fill. “I think there are a lot of players wanting to show you what they’ve got,” he said.
Senior Jaylen Coleman registered 48 tackles over six games and Woodley recorded 50 hits with 6.5 TFL.
Treyvon Hester, a two-time All-MAC player, will anchor the front line, where graduate transfer Earl Moore (Miami, Fla) could provide some mature help.
Senior safety DeJuan Rogers is back after registering 67 tackles and garnering Third Team All-MAC honors last year. Another senior, Connery Swift figures at the other safety spot. Cornerback Jordan Martin was a starter in 2014, but missed last year with an injury.
Senior punter Nick Ellis and sophomore placekicker Jameson Vest return. The latter connected on 70.4 percent of his field goals (12 of 19. Jones was tabbed a First Team All-MAC punt return specialist.
The Rockets have been “knocking on the MAC West title door” for so long, their knuckles should be bruised. It won’t be any easier this year as the competition will be fierce. UT hurt itself by dropping critical home games to Western Michigan and Northern Illinois in 2015. They’ll travel to Kalamazoo this year and face NIU in Chicago. The two keys for Toledo figure to be:
● Having newcomers step in and step up, particularly on defense.
● Mastering a championship level consistency.
"You always have questions," Candle said. "A year ago we were talking about an offensive line that had to be replaced, and then eight weeks into the season, they hadn't given up a sack."
"If you have a great program, I think there are a lot of young guys waiting to show you what they've got."