NCAA Football Preview - Toledo Rockets
By Brandon Lawrence, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Toledo Rockets suffered five losses all season - two to start the 2013 campaign, two to end it, and one somewhere in the middle. Had the Rockets managed to pull one more win out of their hats, the team most likely would have received an invitation to a bowl game. Instead, a 31-29 heart-wrenching loss to Akron in the final week cut Toledo's season short.
It was the first time in three years Toledo hadn't made it to a bowl game. The season started out poorly with tough matchups against SEC opponents Florida (ranked No. 10 at the time) and Missouri. Despite a scare in Week 3, Toledo managed to pull out a win against FCS opponent Eastern Washington for the team's first victory of the year. In the latter half of the 2013 season, the Rockets went on to win five in a row before dropping the final two on the slate.
Toledo finished the year 7-5, with a 5-3 mark in conference play that left the team in a tie for third in the Mid-American Conference's West Division. Coach Matt Campbell returns in 2014 for his third year at the helm and will lead a group of experienced players in an attempt to better the team's 2013 record.
OFFENSE: Toledo returns seven starters on the offensive side of the football, but perhaps some of the vacant positions don't tell the true story of potential.
Terrance Owens is no longer the quarterback for the Rockets after passing for 18 scores last season. But Toledo will likely trot out Alabama transfer Phillip Ely under center in 2014 after the Crimson Tide's signal caller position got a bit backed up with the addition of Jacob Coker. So Ely wanted to go where he had a chance to start, and Toledo is that place. He sat out the 2013 season while his transfer eligibility set in.
Although David Fluellen (1,134 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) is no longer a part of the Toledo backfield, sophomore Kareem Hunt is fully capable of stepping into the starting running back slot. Hunt rushed for 886 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman last season. The Rockets add insurance with Damion Jones-Moore (five touchdowns) at the position. It also helps that four of the team's five starting offensive linemen in 2013 are returning this year.
The receiving corps is where Toledo gets a little thin. Alonzo Russell (six touchdowns) is back, and Dwight Macon (three touchdowns) will likely start with Russell as weapons for Ely. Justin Olack and tight end Alex Zmolik will provide other outlets to which Ely can throw. The offense, which averaged 33 ppg last year, might take some time jelling before it can produce at a high level.
DEFENSE: The defense has teeth this year, and will use nine returning starters to its advantage as it tries to better the 28.6 ppg it surrendered to its opponents in 2013.
"The leaders on our football team did a great job of preparing our younger guys to come in and have a great fall camp," Campbell said. "We're four practices in right now, and what I've seen is a very crisp, well-led football team. Credit goes to our senior class."
Five of the team's top six returning tacklers are back, including First-Team All-MAC selection Junior Sylvestre at linebacker. Sylvestre led the Rockets in tackles with 118 in 2013, and added five sacks, seven quarterback hurries and two pass breakups to his stat line. He and second-leading tackler Chase Murdock (109 tackles, four sacks, three quarterback hurries) make one destructive combination in the middle of Toledo's defense. Adding Trent Voss and Ray Bush to the linebacker corps is absolutely deadly.
Three of the team's four starters in the secondary return as well, including Chaz Whittaker at safety. Whittaker led the team with two interceptions last season, while he and former Florida Gator Jordan Haden (played in four games with Toledo last season) will man the secondary as the safeties. Haden's older brother, Joe, plays for the Cleveland Browns.
Up front, Toledo has one of the best linemen in the conference anchoring the defense from his tackle spot. Sophomore Treyvon Hester was a Third-Team All- MAC selection as a freshman, and will certainly improve his 39 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four tackles for loss line he registered in 2013.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jeremiah Detmer's solid hold on the place kicking duties should make Campbell feel very much at ease as he enters the 2014 season. Detmer was nearly perfect kicking last year, as he connected on 19-of-20 field goal tries with a long of 47 yards. Detmer was perfect from 20-29 yards and also from 40-49 yards. He returns for his senior season at kicker.
The Rockets will have to replace starting punter Vince Penza, however. Penza booted 44 punts in 2013 with a long of 57 yards and an average of 40.8 yards per punt. Sophomore Nick Ellis should win the job heading in 2014.
OUTLOOK: Toledo may have one of the best rosters in the entire conference, and depending on injuries and how well the squad comes together, the Rockets could become the favorite to win the MAC title at the end of the season.
The defense is stifling with such a talented linebacker group and a devastatingly powerful secondary, with Hester manning the line up front. There's no question Toledo's defense will reduce the 28.6 ppg it allowed last year. And the competition seems lesser than it did a year ago.
The Rockets open the season against New Hampshire (ranked fourth in the nation in the FCS), and then face Missouri at home and Cincinnati on the road. The team rounds out the non-conference slate at Iowa State on Oct. 11. Toledo will have to contend with Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, but otherwise have a relatively light conference schedule.
"We've really been stressing three things in practice: attitude, effort and toughness," said offensive lineman Jeff Myers. "Those are three things you don't need to know the plays to be able to do. It's how you play, how you run to the ball, how you finish a play. That's what we've been stressing to the young guys."
Don't be surprised if this team ends up playing for the MAC championship. There are a number of things that could go wrong for the West Division favorite Northern Illinois, in which case Toledo will swoop right in to claim the throne in the conference.
08/19 11:30:31 ET