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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 56: Toledo

There are hot seats, such as one under New Mexico’s Mike Locksley. There are pretty warm seats, like the one on Ron Zook’s armchair. There are tepid seats, lukewarm cushions found underneath backsides in West Lafayette, Fort Collins, Clemson and elsewhere. Then there are ice-cold seats: these are rare indeed. Looking for your 2011 batch of untouchables? Here they are: Saban — him most of all — Pinkel, Stoops, Beamer, Patterson, Petersen, Fitzgerald, Spurrier, Jones, Blakeney, Whittingham, Ellerson, Calhoun, Niumatalolo, Fisher, Cristobal, Mendenhall and Beckman. Yes, Tim Beckman. His seat is so cold it makes those Toledo winters seem like an August practice field during two-a-days.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Toledo, Oh.

Nickname
Rockets

Returning starters
18 (9 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 72

2010 record
(8-5, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 68

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    New Hampshire
  • Sept. 10
    at Ohio St.
  • Sept. 17
    Boise St.
  • Sept. 24
    at Syracuse
  • Oct. 1
    at Temple
  • Oct. 8
    Eastern Michigan
  • Oct. 15
    at Bowling Green
  • Oct. 22
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 1
    Northern Illinois
  • Nov. 8
    W. Michigan
  • Nov. 17
    at C. Michigan
  • Nov. 25
    at Ball St.

Last year’s prediction

While I have Northern Illinois taking the West, I do think we’ll see the Rockets return to bowl play after a four-year absence. This is due to what looks like a strong offense, even if quarterback remains a slight concern. I expect to see the defense improve, thanks to an added year of experience in Beckman’s system. With the money Toledo has put into refurbishing its facilities and the way Beckman has recruited, its only a matter of time before the Rockets are the dominating program in the West division.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Toledo’s finest season since 2005, albeit one very slightly diminished by Northern Illinois’s domination of the MAC West division. You’d have to look pretty close to find anything wrong with last season: you could point to a bad loss to a bad Wyoming team, or lopsided defeats to the best teams on the schedule —Arizona, Boise State and the Huskies — or even an avoidable bowl loss to Florida International, but you’d be nitpicking. In two years, Beckman has turned around a proud program fallen on hard times, rebuilding the mess left by his predecessor and leading the Rockets to the top of the West — something, I can say while breathing on my hand and rubbing my collar, I did believe would occur sooner or later. This is a bit sooner, however. Beckman has done a terrific job, garnering goodwill from Toledo fans and the university administration along the way.

High point A three-week stretch from Sept. 11-25. Three very impressive wins, each on the road: by a touchdown at Ohio, 13 points at Western Michigan and 11 points at Purdue. It was the first of two three-game winning streaks on the year, joining the threesome of Kent State, Ball State and Eastern Michiganin October. The first streak was more impressive, it’s safe to say.

Low point You knew Toledo was going to lose to Arizona, Boise State and Northern Illinois— the only question was by how much. I have the answer: 117 points. You didn’t think the Rockets would lose to a three-win Wyoming team, which they did, and it was widely believed that the Rockets would take care of Florida International, which they didn’t.

Tidbit Toledo’s win over Purdue gave the program five wins in as many years over B.C.S. conference competition, joining wins over Colorado in 2009, Michigan in 2008, Iowa State in 2007 and Kansas in 2006. Toledo has had a pretty fair record of success against the B.C.S. conferences over the last 15 years: the Rockets beat Pittsburgh in 2003, Minnesota in 2001, Penn State in 2000 and Purdue again in 1997.

Tidbit (age edition) Say hello to one of the youngest coaching staffs in the nation. Six of Toledo’s 10 coaches, counting Beckman, graduated from college in the 2000s: offensive coordinator Matt Campbell (’02), co-defensive coordinator Paul Nichols (’03), running backs coach Louis Ayeni (’03), receivers coach Jason Candle (’03) and tight ends coach Alex Golesh (’06). The old man among this group is assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator Mike Ward (’84), whom I imagine is the butt of innumerable age-related jokes during staff meetings.

Tidbit (quick turnarounds edition) Five MAC programs finished with a winning record in 2010: Toledo, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ohio and Temple. Each of the five lost at least eight games at least once over the previous three seasons. The Rockets went 3-9 in 2008, Tom Amstutz’s final season; Miami (Ohio) lost 11 games in 2009, Mike Haywood’s first season, and 10 games in 2008, Shane Montgomery’s last; the Huskies lost 10 games in 2008, Joe Novak’s final year; Ohio lost eight games in 2008 under Frank Solich; and Temple lost eight games in 2007 under Al Golden.

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 S Barry Church (Dallas), QB Bruce Gradkowski (Oakland), OG John Greco (St. Louis), WR Andrew Hawkins (St. Louis), OT Nick Kaczur (New England), P Brett Kern (Tennessee), WR Lance Moore (New Orleans), RB Jalen Parmele (Baltimore), RB Chester Taylor (Chicago), WR Stephen Williams (Arizona).

Arbitrary top five list

German scientists involved in NASA’s rocket program
1. Wernher von Braun.
2. Arthur Rudolph.
3. Ernst Stuhlinger.
4. Kurt H. Debus.
5. Walter Haeussermann.

Coaching

Tim Beckman (Findlay ’88), 13-12 after two seasons. Coaches across the country experience pangs of envy when considering the frigidity of Beckman’s seat in Toledo. From day one, Beckman has seemed like a good fit at Toledo. For starters, he has experience coaching both in the MAC and in the state of Ohio. From 1998-2004, Beckman was the defensive coordinator and the assistant head coach at Bowling Green. Over that time, Beckman served under Gary Blackney (1998-2000), Urban Meyer (2001-2) and Gregg Brandon (2003-4). Bowling Green’s best defense under Beckman was the 2001 unit, which allowed only 19.5 points per game. In 2005, Beckman was hired by Ohio State as its secondary coach; the Buckeyes went 10-2 that season before going 12-1 and participating in the B.C.S. Championship Game in 2006. Beckman spent the 2007-8 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State: the Cowboys went 16-10 over this period and participated in two bowl games, winning one. Oklahoma State won nine games in 2008, then the second-highest win total in school history; all four of its losses came against nationally ranked opposition, and three — Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech — came against teams then ranked in the top three of the A.P. poll. In all, the last seven teams on which Beckman was an assistant spent at least one week in the Top 25 each season. He brought a breadth of high-level experience to the position, and it’s showed. Through two years, Beckman has been a wonderful fit.

Players to watch

You can discover all you need to know about Eric Page by taking a glance at one single game: Toledo’s 42-24 win over Central Michigan.

8:41, 1st quarter 99-yard kickoff return, touchdown
11:56, second quarter nine-yard reception, touchdown
8:49, second quarter 25-yard reception, touchdown
10:29, third quarter 95-yard kickoff return, touchdown
10:39, fourth quarter 28-yard pass, touchdown

One game, five touchdowns, three different ways: kickoffs, receiving, passing. Yeah, Page is something else. He’s the best receiver in the country not getting even the slightest national publicity, though Page was a first-team all-American for his work in the return game – 31.3 yards per kickoff return, third in the F.B.S, and three touchdown returns, most in the country. Page is something else as a receiver as well, as his 99 grabs for 1,105 yards and 8 scores suggest. Page is just something else, pure and simple, and he’s the most unheralded offensive skill player in the country.

But Toledo needs to give him some help. Only one other receiver made at least 18 grabs last fall, Kenny Stafford (18 for 337 yards), and while he’s back in the fold in 2011 the Rockets need a real second option to take some pressure off of Page. I think that very well may be former Illinois transfer Cordale Scott, who has N.F.L.-ready size but does lack game experience. Senior Tim Cortazzo is in the mix, but like Scott he does not bring a tremendous amount of playing time into 2011. Perhaps a freshman or sophomore will step up, as Toledo has plenty of those: Bernard Reedy, James Green, Jeff Moore and Cassius McDowell, to name a few, with the latter fully healthy after missing last season with a knee injury. It’s the Eric Page show, but the Rockets need more from the second option on down.

The line is defined by its three senior starters: left tackle Mike VanDerMeulen, left guard Phillipkeith Manley and right tackle John Morookian. It’s an all-name group, not to mention a talented trio with plenty of time spent mauling in the trenches. The Rockets are ready to roll with this three, which is a solid foundation upon which to insert a pair of new starters. Kevin Kowalski’s departure leaves a pretty big hole at center, though the Rockets seem to have found a replacement in sophomore Zac Kerin – though two more youngsters are right on his heels. Look for more competition at right guard, where Toledo could turn to junior A.J. Lindeman – probably the leader at this point – or redshirt freshmen Greg Macnza and Josh Hendershot.

The Rockets brings back a 1,000-yard back in Adonis Thomas, who could be a 1,300-yard back if he continues the hot pace he carried over the second half of last season. Thomas broke through from mid-October on, cracking the 130-yard mark in four of his last six games; his high point came in the bowl loss to F.I.U., when he rushed for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Keep feeding him the ball, Toledo. There’s more where that came from: senior Morgan Williams is a 1,000-yard back in his own right, though that came way back in 2008. Williams has shown an ability to make it happen through the air and on the ground, like Thomas, and can deliver when called upon. Sophomore David Fluellen (224 yards, 5.9 yards per carry) rounds out the top three – and it’s a pretty good top three.

The Toledo defense took a major step forward last fall, its second under Beckman’s tutelage, and this progression was the main reason behind the team’s return to bowl play. It’s very easy to see more improvement taking place in 2011, even if the two lost starters – perhaps three, depending on an injury – will be difficult to replace. That’s primarily due to the returning talent, but don’t sleep on having yet another year of experience playing under Beckman, knowing what he wants to do and knowing what he expects from his defense. So what does his expect? Speed, aggression and solid tackling, the hallmarks of any successful defensive coordinator – and the hallmark of any good defense.

The one area where Toledo really needs to step up is against the pass, where the Rockets ranked 12th in the MAC a year ago. They’ll be much better in 2011, seeing that the Rockets bring back five defensive backs with starting experience. That’s as of today: strong safety Jermaine Robinson (46 tackles, 1 interception) tore his Achilles during bowl play, leaving his availability for the season opener somewhat in doubt. His role is being held for now by senior Diauntae Morrow (40 tackles, 2 picks), who did a nice job in a secondary role last fall. Mark Singer (73 tackles, 2 interceptions) returns at free safety for his third year in the starting lineup.

One cornerback spot is tied up with senior Desmond Marrow (73 tackles, 3 interceptions), who received a sixth year of eligibility from the N.C.A.A. – a huge break for the Rockets. But there are some depth issues behind Marrow and Taikwon Paige, so Toledo will need to locate some quality minutes from a batch of redshirt freshmen, such as Keith Suggs, Anthony Adams, John James and Tyler Smith.

Once a weakness, Toledo now has enough depth up front to make it the envy of the MAC. It’s not just the returning starters, though there are three pretty accomplished linemen dotting the top line of the depth chart: junior T.J. Fatinikun (51 tackles, 13 for loss, 5 sacks) and seniors Malcolm Riley (44 tackles, team-best 5.5 sacks) and Johnie Roberts (34 tackles, 3.5 for loss). The biggest question plaguing this defensive front – and it’s really not plaguing the Rockets, not exactly – is whether to play Riley inside at tackle or outside at end.

If he plays inside alongside Roberts, Toledo could turn to sophomore Christian Smith or junior Hank Keighley. If Riley moves outside, as he has the athleticism to do so, Toledo would call upon senior Johnathan Lamb, one of last season’s leading interior reserves. As you can tell, the Rockets have depth. And this is quite a change, one propelled forward by Beckman and his hard-working staff over only two full recruiting cycles.

You don’t replace Archie Donald’s production, and you certainly have had a difficult time replacing his leadership and experience, which won’t be easily duplicated. The good news: Dan Molls (143 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 interceptions) is one of the MAC’s best defensive players, let alone one of the conference’s best linebackers. He’s now the star of this defense, a role the quiet, heady junior will accept with little fanfare. Linebacker depth took a hit when Isaiah Ballard was kicked off the team in late May, but the Rockets have enough, with Molls leading the way, to get it done at the position.

Charles Rancifer takes over at the outside linebacker spot that would have likely gone to Ballard, and while the Rockets lose experience and proven production hopes are high that Rancifer will step seamlessly from reserve duties to a starting role. Converted cornerback Byron Best is an option here, but I worry about his lack of size making him a liability against the run. Junior Robert Bell leads the way on the weak side, though redshirt freshman Ray Bush cut into his lead with a strong spring. And former Oklahoma State transfer Jordan Barnes might be too talented to keep off the field, though he has yet to make a significant move on the depth chart.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Going by the numbers, this competition would be over before it even started: the answer would be sophomore Terrance Owens. He replaced an injured Austin Dantin in late October, throwing for at least two touchdowns in each of his four regular season starts and, when all was said and done, faring far better statistically than his teammate. But numbers don’t always tell the whole story, and you can’t quantify the leadership role Dantin holds with this team. That is likely why the scrappier junior is still neck-and-neck with the strong-armed sophomore, and that’s why we shouldn’t hold our breath for an answer under center until Toledo returns to the practice field in August. Let’s take a peek in that crystal ball, however, and take a stab at the eventual starter. In Dantin’s favor is his experience, which also can’t be calculated. This is also the quarterback who led the Rockets to those three solid road wins in September, and that’s the sort of team-building stretch that will rally any locker room behind a quarterback. But you can’t ignore Owens’s physical gifts, most notably this arm: Toledo has some big targets at receiver, and Owens can get them the ball in places — down field, for instance — that Dantin simply cannot. Both will play, but Owens’s passing ability likely gives him the edge. If Beckman does opt for Dantin, however, it will be because he trusts Dantin’s head in tight spots, in games where a younger quarterback might succumb the to the moment. I see three such games before the calendar turns to October: Ohio State, Boise State and Syracuse.

Game(s) to watch

The three non-conference games stand out. That’s a pretty intimidating stretch for any team, MAC  or otherwise. But Toledo really needs to understand that those games won’t decide the season. It’s the games against Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, in back-to-back weeks, that will decide whether Toledo has a successful or a disappointing 2011 campaign.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s a lot to like here. A lot to like, beginning with Tim Beckman. He’s done an outstanding job thus far, rebuilding this program from the dark final days under Tom Amstutz into the finest team in the MAC West. More than likely, the Rockets are the best team in the MAC altogether, even if Ohio will finish the regular season with a better final record. Don’t let the won-loss mark fool you: the non-conference mark might prevent Toledo from making any improvement in the win column, but this team is better than it was a year ago. The Rockets will probably enter MAC play at 1-3, with losses to Ohio State, Boise State and Syracuse, but look for this team to make a major move during MAC play: we won’t see more than two losses during conference action, with another 7-1 conference mark very much in the cards. Why? Because the offense is ready to roll, minus the ongoing quarterback competition. Beckman needs to make a decision here, but I don’t think he can go wrong with either Dantin or Owens – experience on the one hand, blossoming talent on the other. Secondly, the defense will continue to improve with each practice under Beckman, especially now that the Rockets have great depth in the secondary and the front seven. So everything is lined up for another banner year: I think 8-4 is a safe pick, though that would probably take seven wins in the MAC. Definitely doable. Along with Ohio, Toledo is the class of the conference. Get on the Beckman bandwagon now, as he might be heading for a bigger job over the next year or two.

Dream season The Rockets lose to Ohio State and Boise State but run the table the rest of the way, topping the regular season with a win in the MAC title game.

Nightmare season It’s not too hard to picture a 5-7 finish with this schedule; that wouldn’t make it any easier to swallow, however.

In case you were wondering

Where do Toledo fans congregate? I’m all about the little guy here on the Countdown, so here are two independent sites that talk Toledo sports: The Launch Pad and The Rocket Report. For recruiting news, check out Rocket Digest. For a blog’s take, Let’s Go Rockets is your best option.

Word Count

Through 65 teams 190,846.

Up Next

Who is No. 55? The largest employer in the city housing tomorrow’s university is the school itself. The second-largest, fittingly, is the second-largest grocery retailer in the United States.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Papa John says:

    Cincinnati is next?

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Cincinnati Bearcats are next.

  3. BocaRocket says:

    QB Owens looked like the #3 QB in the Toledo Spring game.Both Dantin and Macon looked very good running the Offense, while Owens went a paltry 8-17 passing.
    Bernard Reedy Jr.(the fastest Rocket) had a tremendous Spring game receiving. Look for the Soph WR to have a breakout year in 2011.RSFr. Greg Mancz was #1 at the OC position at the end of Spring with Zac Kerin starting at RG.
    Defensively, Bo Rancifer had beaten out Ballard for the #1 Star position. The MAC’s best newcomer Fr.Andre Sturdivant, who chose Toledo over Penn State, should contribute to the DL. Likewise, Fr. Jeremiah Detmer should solve the Rockets’ problems in the kicking game.
    When Coach Beckman came onboard he wanted to improve team speed and depth. He’s done that with the two top recruiting classes he owns. Toledo has more overall depth and speed than any other MAC program. Last year I said the Rockets were underated and they were. This year, UT probably should be ranked another 10 spots higher. Last season I commented about the good possibility of a win at Purdue. Look for Toledo to pick up a BCS road win at Syracuse and to throw a scare into some Buckeye fans in Columbus. With the Miami U, NIU, and WMU games in the Glass Bowl,the Rockets should have the inside track to a MAC West title and a trip to the MACC in early December.If they meet Ohio U in Detroit for the MAC title, Toledo has won 12 straight over the Bobcats and 3-0 against Frank Solich coached teams.

  4. SixWinSeason says:

    How awesome would it be if Toledo beat Ohio State? I’m pulling for the Rockets!

  5. Joel says:

    I think it’s quite possible that Toledo knocks off a distracted Ohio State team. Remember last year, the Buckeyes needed an intercepted 2-point conversion to hold off Navy in the first game of the season. This year, with less star power and all the coaching distraction, I wouldn’t be surprised if Toledo could pull off the win.

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