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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. 57: Toledo

It was now or never for Toledo under Tim Beckman, though we only had a sneaking suspicion at the time. But the signs were there, even as early as last season’s opening month. On Sept. 10, Beckman led the Rockets into Columbus to take on Ohio State, which was in the market for a new head coach, and came within 20 yards of notching a historic upset. There’s no better way to make an impression than to take your ragamuffin bunch into a national power’s house and win, and even if the Rockets came close but failed, Beckman’s stock took a significant jump. From that time forward — as long as Toledo reached its massive potential — the program was merely counting down the days until it entered a coaching search of its own. That day came on Dec. 9, when Illinois tabbed Beckman to reverse its fortunes as Ron Zook’s successor. From there, Toledo was left with two choices: continuity or change. Wisely, the Rockets went with more of the same.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Toledo, Oh.

Nickname
Rockets

Returning starters
9 (4 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 56

2011 record
(9-4, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 32

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Arizona
  • Sept. 8
    at Wyoming
  • Sept. 15
    Bowling Green
  • Sept. 22
    Coastal Carolina
  • Sept. 29
    at Western Mich.
  • Oct. 6
    Central Michigan
  • Oct. 13
    at Eastern Mich.
  • Oct. 20
    Cincinnati
  • Oct. 27
    at Buffalo
  • Nov. 6
    Ball St.
  • Nov. 14
    at N.I.U.
  • Nov. 20
    Akron

Last year’s prediction

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. 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. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Yes, the Rockets got their doors blown off at home against Boise State. But the three remaining losses came by a combined 11 points: 27-22 at Ohio State, 33-30 in overtime at Syracuse — with help, though that’s not the right word, from some of the worst officiating in recent F.B.S. history — and 63-60 to Northern Illinois in November. The latter loss gave the Huskies the MAC West crown, such as a 65-30 defeat did in 2010. But the Rockets came into the year as the class of the MAC, in my opinion, and after four months could still make a strong case for that title. After watching both teams all year, I saw little differentiating the eventual MAC champ, N.I.U., with the second-place finisher in the West — except three points, that Tuesday night in November.

High point A 36-13 win at Temple to open MAC play. There, most thought, was the best team in the MAC. The Owls were great, but the best team the Rockets beat all season might have been Air Force; the Rockets won, 42-41, in the Military Bowl.

Low point The 63-60 loss to Northern Illinois. Hey, at least the Rockets only allowed 63; that’s two points fewer than the Huskies scored in 2010. The defense failed at certain points all year, eventually crumbling down the stretch. A week after that loss, the Rockets gave up another 63 points in a three-point win over Western Michigan.

Tidbit Matt Campbell is the youngest head coach in the F.B.S. by a fairly substantial margin. Campbell, 32, is three full years younger than Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart and Justin Fuente of Memphis, just shy of five years younger than Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and nearly six years younger than U.A.B.’s Garrick McGee. What’s another way to put Campbell’s youth in perspective? He is 4 years, 6 months and 20 days younger than Lane Kiffin.

Tidbit (youth edition) Campbell’s the youngest head coach in the country. More youth: Toledo’s staff is also the youngest in the nation. Only one assistant, Scott Isphording, is over 40; he’s 41. Another coach, Tom Manning, is only 28. Another four are either 31 or 32. If you include Campbell, the average age of Toledo’s 10-coach staff is 34.5 years old.

Tidbit (season tickets edition) Toledo sold a school-record 11,791 season tickets in 2011, bettering the previous record of 11,005 season tickets set a year before. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the program’s lowest season ticket sales came in 2009, Beckman’s first season – you’d think that totals would rise given the coaching change, what with the added excitement and all, but the Rockets sold only 7,476 season tickets, down from 8,190 in 2008.

Tidbit (domination edition) Toledo owns Michigan and Penn State. Well, not really. But the Rockets are 1-0 against both teams, topping the Wolverines in 2008 – becoming the first  MAC team to beat U.M. – and dominating Penn State, 24-6, in 2000. While it’s a small sample size, Toledo is only the program in the country to be undefeated against both Michigan and Penn State.

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 S Barry Church (Dallas), QB Bruce Gradkowski (Cincinnati), WR Andre Hawkins (Cincinnati), TE Chris Hopkins (New York Giants), P Brett Kern (Tennessee), C Kevin Kowalski (Dallas), OG Phillipkeith Manley (Atlanta), CB Desmond Marrow (Houston), WR Lance Moore (New Orleans), TE Danny Noble (Tampa Bay), WR Eric Page (Denver), RB Jalen Parmele (Jacksonville), WR Kenny Stafford (Atlanta), RB Adonis Thomas (Cleveland), OG Mike VanDerMeulen (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

F.B.S. coordinators, 35 and under
1. Justin Wilcox, Washington (defensive).
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M (offensive).
3. Neal Brown, Texas Tech (offensive).
4. Josh Heupel, Oklahoma (co-offensive).
5. John Papuchis, Nebraska (defensive).

Coaching

Matt Campbell (Mount Union ’02), entering his first full season as Toledo’s head coach. Campbell was only briefly the Rockets’ interim head coach; he was named as Beckman’s replacement three days after the latter left for Illinois, filling the void well in advance of December’s bowl date against Air Force – a win, leaving Campbell a perfect 1-0 heading into 2012. While an original member of Beckman’s staff with the Rockets, the ties between the two head coaches go back to 2003, when Campbell, then a graduate assistant, worked alongside Beckman, then the defensive coordinator, at MAC rival Bowling Green. Campbell then went to his alma mater, Mount Union, spending two years as Larry Kehres’ offensive line coach – winning the Division III national title in both 2004 and 2005. Then it was back to Bowling Green for three years (2006-8), serving as the Falcons’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator. In 2009, Beckman tagged Campbell as his offensive line coach; one year later, Campbell was promoted to offensive coordinator. His first offense, in 2010, was fairly average: Toledo actually scored fewer points per game than in 2009. Last fall’s offense, on the other hand, was easily the finest in school history. The Rockets were nearly unstoppable, combining superb quarterback play with a strong running game and a deadly combination at receiver, finishing in the top 17 nationally in scoring, rushing and total offense. Due to Toledo’s offensive growth under Campbell, he rapidly became the leading favorite to replace Beckman last December. What he gives Toledo isn’t merely continuity but a young, energetic head coach at the forefront of a program looking to continue its climb both in the MAC and on the national level.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Beckman took three assistants with him to Illinois in Alex Golesh, Mike Ward and Steve Clinkscale. Campbell retained another four co-members of Beckman’s staff, highlighted by three key offensive assistants: assistant head coach and run game coordinator Louis Ayeni, quarterbacks coach Scott Isphording and former wide receivers coach Jason Candle, who will serve as Campbell’s offensive coordinator – though Campbell will keep his eyes on that side of the ball. One of the five new hires, offensive line coach Tom Manning, who spent last season in the same role at Mount Union, was a Toledo graduate assistant from 2008-10. The rest: former William & Mary cornerbacks coach D.K. McDonald will serve in the same position, special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Stan Watson comes over from Bowling Green, safeties coach Bryce Saia comes from Emporia State and defensive coordinator Tom Matukewicz, a Jerry Kill disciple, comes over from rival Northern Illinois.

Players to watch

Last fall, Toledo achieved a feat that many programs have tried but few accomplished: a true, working, productive two-quarterback system – or as close to a true two-quarterback system as is humanly possible. Combined, junior Terrance Owens and senior Austin Dantin completed 308 of 418 attempts, a completion percentage of 73.7 percent, for 3,426 yards and 33 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. Combined, they were outstanding. As individuals: Owens was 166 of 230 for 2,022 yards and 18 touchdowns against 3 picks; Dantin was 122 of 188 for 1,404 yards and 15 touchdowns against 4 picks.

Dantin were Owens were outstanding together, terrific apart. Dantin was the de facto starter coming out fall camp, and ended up starting – and this means little, seeing how often Toledo rotated – each of the Rockets’ first 10 games. But he suffered a concussion in the second quarter against Western Michigan, handing Owens sole possession of the job over the year’s last three games and change. To say that Owens delivered would be an understatement.

All Owens did over the last three games of Toledo’s season was complete 70 of 88 attempts – that’s 79.5 percent, by the way – for 752 yards and 7 touchdowns without a single interception. At another school, Owens’ sublime play down the stretch, not to mention the fact that he’s more mobile than Dantin, would make him the unquestioned starter. That won’t happen at Toledo.

If Toledo hadn’t hired Campbell, I could have seen the team go with one starter – yes, likely Owens. But seeing that Campbell has shown an ability to use both in an extremely productive way, there’s absolutely no reason to think that Dantin and Owens won’t continue to share snaps in 2012. What you will see, in my opinion, is a greater role for Owens at Dantin’s expense. But how many teams would kill for one polished starter, let alone two? Good coaches take advantage of depth, much like Beckman did last fall. I don’t think Campbell would be so foolish as to remove one from the offense.

While Toledo has two great options at quarterback, depth at both running back and receiver has been gutted since the end of the last season. In the backfield, Toledo lost leading rushers Adonis Thomas and Morgan Williams; out wide, the Rockets must replace Eric Page, who left a year ahead of schedule, as well as Kenny Stafford. While the Rockets aren’t starting from scratch, it’s hard to imagine this offense landing the same level of play at the skill positions.

Junior David Fluellen (493 yards) takes over at running back. He was the team’s third option last fall, doing most of his damage over a three-game stretch in October when Thomas was sidelined by an injury. While Fluellen took a backseat down the stretch, he flashed an ability to put together yards in bunches when given the opportunity. The solidly-built Fluellen could team with 232-pound senior David Pasquale to give Toledo one of the biggest backfield pairings in the MAC.

Sophomore Cassius McDowell is another option at running back, but the Rockets’ lack of proven production at receiver will likely result in him spending this season out wide. With Page no longer around to carry Toledo in the passing game, Campbell and Candle will need a big season out of junior Bernard Reedy (40 receptions for 758 yards and 9 scores), the team’s only returning receiver of consequence. Reedy went into the offseason on a high note: he was the Military Bowl M.V.P. after making 4 receptions for 126 yards and 3 touchdowns. For Reedy, who should be a first-team all-MAC pick in this offense, the key will be making plays while at the center of the action; that he was able to break free so often last fall has much to do with the attention  paid to Page by opposing defenses.

Reedy and McDowell are joined at receiver by a hodgepodge of unproven targets: Dwight Macon, James Green, Justin Olack, Jimmy Davidson and Sam Gaymon, among others. Macon, who moved from quarterback in the spring – and will presumably move back to quarterback in 2013 – impressed to the point where he’s very much in the mix for significant snaps. But with no experience behind Reedy – and you can’t even count McDowell as experienced – there’s a chance that a few true and redshirt freshmen make up a portion of the rotation. One player to keep an eye on is senior Cordale Scott, a former receiver who moves out to tight end in 2012.

It’ll be interesting to see what sort of impact Matukewicz has on this program. He won’t make any schematic changes: Toledo will continue to run the same 4-3 defense, one that uses a nose tackle, a hybrid end-linebacker and a hybrid safety-linebacker. As on offense, the Rockets went with the status quo. What will be worth watching with Matukewicz is whether he brings some knowledge of Northern Illinois’ offense to the table; after two inept defensive showings against the Huskies, perhaps bringing in someone familiar with the team’s system will help Toledo get over the hump in the MAC West.

The defense’s trouble spot lies in the secondary, where the Rockets must replace three of last season’s starters – four if you count the hybrid as a fifth defensive back. The situation isn’t bad at safety: Toledo brings back senior strong safety Jermaine Robinson (55 tackles, 3 interceptions) and will get a healthy season from senior free safety Mark Singer, who missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury. Singer’s return can’t be overestimated; he pushes junior Ross Madison (25 tackles) into a role as Toledo’s third safety.

But the Rockets need to find answers at cornerback. Is there a way to get both sophomore Jordan Haden and senior Byron Best (18 tackles) on the field at the same time? Perhaps, though both are better fit for Desmond Marrow’s former role at boundary cornerback. Best needs to play, if only due to his experience; he started 12 games at cornerback from 2009-10 before moving down to linebacker last fall. But Haden, a former Florida transfer, is the most gifted cornerback on the roster. At field cornerback, Toledo will start one of sophomores Keith Suggs and Kishon Wilcher (28 tackles). Add JUCO transfer Cameron Cole into the mix and you have more than enough bodies to make something happen. But this group did not look good during the spring.

The only change at linebacker comes at the hybrid spot, where Best’s move to cornerback opens up a free lane for former Michigan transfer Vladimir Emilien. If he lives up to the advance billing, Emilien will give Toledo more production out of the position. If he falters – and Big Ten transfers, head coaches in particular, don’t always work out in the MAC – Matukewicz can turn to sophomore Junior Sylvestre. Toledo is locked and loaded at inside linebacker: seniors Dan Molls (70 tackles) Robert Bell (78 tackles, 4.5 for loss) are all-conference contenders. Toledo is looking forward to getting a full season out of Molls, who missed most of last September and October due to injuries.

If not the best defensive line in the MAC, Toledo’s front is surprisingly deep – surprising because the Rockets do lose three starters off of last year’s group. The line’s star, and the star of the defense as a whole, is senior T.J. Fatinikun (23 tackles, 7.5 for loss), a two-time all-MAC selection who fits wonderfully into Toledo’s hybrid end-linebacker role. Fatinikun, like Molls, missed a good portion of last season with an injury; his replacement in 2011, junior Christian Smith (27 tackles, 5.5 for loss), will move into a starting role at traditional end, replacing Malcolm Riley. Junior Elijah Jones (23 tackles, 3.0 for loss) – he had a great bowl games – and senior Danny Farr step into starting roles at nose tackle and tackle, respectively.

The line’s strength is in its depth. Junior Jayrone Elliott (31 tackles), redshirt freshman Keenen Gibbs and senior Hank Keighley can spell Fatinikun and Smith – especially Elliott, who might play as much as any starter. Senior Phil Lewis, junior Ben Pike and true freshmen Allen Covington and Treyvon Hester provide depth inside. Toledo might be less experienced, but in terms of overall depth, the Rockets are stronger than they were a year ago.

Toledo’s return game is going to take a drastic step back – you don’t lose Page and keep dictating field position, of course. What the Rockets will do is use Reedy on returns, rolling the dice, as they did with Page, that their top receiver doesn’t suffer a special teams injury. Strong-legged sophomore Jeremiah Detmer takes over at kicker, permanently replacing Ryan Casano after serving only as the long-distance option a season ago.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Two numbers that describe just how strong Toledo’s line was a year ago: the Rockets allowed only 10.0 sacks, the fourth-lowest total in the country, while the team made 425 pass attempts – that’s one sack for every 42.5 attempts, which is ludicrous; and the offense ranked 17th in the F.B.S. in rushing, churning out an average of 213.6 yards on 42.7 carries per game. When you combine the two factors, that Toledo was absolutely superb in protection and physically dominating on the ground, you can make the case that the Rockets’ offensive line play ranked among the best in the country – joining teams like Boise State and Stanford.

The Rockets will rebuild up front without three starters: left tackle Mike VanDerMeulen, left guard Phillipkeith Manley and right tackle John Morookian. In addition, while Campbell will continue be very hands-on up front, Toledo will break in a new line coach in Manning. What you see with the Rockets is a line that will lean very heavily on its returning starters, sophomore right guard Greg Mancz and junior center Zac Kerin, while the rest of the line works into shape in August. In Mancz and Kerin, Toledo has a very solid pairing to build around: Kerin is the MAC’s best center, while Mancz will challenge for all-conference honors as a second-year starter.

In a perfect world, Toledo will be able to simply slide last year’s backups into starting roles at left guard and both tackle spots. Based on the spring – even if those spots aren’t set in stone – it seems as if the Rockets will be able to do just that: sophomore Josh Hendershot at left tackle, sophomore Jeff Myers at left guard and senior A.J. Lindeman at right tackle. Behind that group lies pure youth, redshirt freshmen and sophomores, so the Rockets must also avoid injuries. Another issue: this year’s is smaller than last year’s version – if the current starting five holds true, by an average of 11.8 pounds per lineman. That might not sound like much, but, well, it is.

Game(s) to watch

The non-conference slate is far less intimidating than a season ago. While the Rockets do take on a pair of B.C.S. conference opponents in Arizona and Cincinnati, the Wildcats will be playing in their first game under Rich Rodriguez and the Bearcats come to the Glass Bowl – not that I think that Toledo is going to win either game. Where the Rockets will make hay is at home during MAC play: Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Ball State and Akron. A perfect 4-0 mark is likely; at least 3-1 is guaranteed. Unfortunately, the Rockets get MAC West rivals Western Michigan and Northern Illinois on the road. That’s not good for business.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell If Toledo had gone outside the program to find Beckman’s successor rather than promote Campbell, I’d peg the Rockets to take a substantial step back in 2012. That’s due to a simple idea: Toledo, already hurt by losses to graduation and the N.F.L. Draft, would have offset its major strength – a poised and steady corps of returning talent well-versed in this system – but moving into new offensive and defensive schemes. In other words, the program made a wise move by promoting continuity on the coaching staff; to take it a step further, Campbell was wise to maintain the same look on defense despite bringing in a new defensive coordinator. While it’s highly unlikely that the Rockets match last season’s success, there’s every reason to think that Toledo has enough returning talent to again run neck-and-neck with Northern Illinois for the MAC West crown. Begin with what Toledo has over the overwhelming majority of the MAC: superb quarterback play, a proven top receiver, a strong interior on the offensive line, depth along the defensive line and athleticism at linebacker. Above all else, Toledo has this system: it works, pure and simple.

But the team is going to take a step back. While Reedy will earn all-MAC honors, there’s little behind him at receiver. Mancz and Kerin are great at guard and center, respectively, but the Rockets won’t match the production they landed from last year’s terrific line. Even if the front seven is secure, Toledo is still waiting for answers in the secondary. With history as our guide, the Rockets need a complete defensive effort to beat a team like Northern Illinois. Many things have changed, from coaches to personnel. Some things haven’t changed: Toledo is still a definite bowl team and an eight-win contender – and still the second-best team in the MAC West.

Dream season Toledo gets off to a rollicking start, topping Arizona and Wyoming on the road before taking care of business against Bowling Green and Coastal Carolina. While the Rockets lose a tough game at Western Michigan, they rebound to beat Northern Illinois, clinching the MAC West, and lose only to Cincinnati over the year’s second half. That would give Toledo 10 wins for the first time since 2001.

Nightmare season The Rockets drop the following games: Arizona, Wyoming, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Cincinnati, Northern Illinois and Ball State. Despite some turnover, anything less than six wins would be enormously disappointing.

In case you were wondering

Where do Toledo fans congregate? I’m all about the little guy, so here are two independent sites: 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. Ryan Autullo covers the entire field of Toledo sports for the Toledo Blade.

Toledo’s all-name nominee DT Orion Jones.

Word Count

Through 68 teams 262,962.

Up Next

Who is No. 56? If tomorrow’s program can just find one more win at some point over the next few years – against one of its major divisional rivals, hopefully – its head coach will have posted nine-win seasons in three separate decades.

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Comments

  1. Guess says:

    South Florida? Skip Holtz?

  2. CJK5H says:

    It’s Southern Methodist University.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    June Jones at SMU is up tomorrow. What a great job he has done rebuilding that program thus far.

  4. BocaRocket86 says:

    Rockets had the 5th most lost starts due to in Division I in 2011. These were mainly on the defensive side of the FB. Combine that with the Star LB getting
    suspended, UT had a patchwork defensive unit for the NIU and WMU games.
    Toledo’s receiving corp is alot better than you suggest. Macon, one of Page’s replacements, took off 70 yds for a TD with his first reception during the Spring game.Coach Campbell shut it down before showing too much.Cassius McDowell would have been a starter last season except for coming off an injury according to Coach Campbell. He maybe the fastest player in the MAC, returning K/O’s, RB, and slot receiver.
    The recent updated roster has corrected players’ weights and the OL is about 10 lbs heaver on average
    than what had previously beeen posted. QB Dantin is faster and more mobile than Owens.The Rockets’ chance for a win in Tucson is not that remote. Toledo should win at WMU.The Broncos play 2 BIg 10 and a BE school prior to the Rockets.WMU should be pretty beatup, having little depth, returning the 2nd fewest lettermen
    of any MAC program. If it comes down to OU and Toledo in the MACC, the Bobcats haven’t beaten the Rockets since ’88 and Solich is 0-3 with 2 losses in Athens.

  5. Ezra says:

    is there a harder to read team than SMU? They’re at once talented, but inexperienced, new, old, thin, and deep. I think 2012 is SMU’s final year of “program puberty,” and then comes the offensive juggernaut they’ve been waiting for at the Hilltop since the bad old days.

  6. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is up next.

  7. The End of the World As You Know It says:

    @BocaRocket86

    “Cassius McDowell…maybe the fastest player in the MAC, returning K/O’s, RB, and slot receiver.”

    Did you see last season’s NIU vs Toledo game?

    The person (fastest in the MAC/returning kicks/slot receiver) of which you speak is named Tommylee Lewis, he plays for the NIU Huskies, and he will TORCH Turdledo again in 2012.

    Look at the bright side, after 2012, you should only have to deal with him for two more years. Then again, NIU has Charlie Miller waiting in the wings.

    Brace yourself. 11/14/2012

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