Toledo must replace Bruce Gradkowski, the record setting QB who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after earning co-MAC MVP honors in 2005. Clint Cochran, the only returning player with experience, looks to be the starter this fall. Cochran played sparingly in 2005 but did have one start against Fresno State, passing for 163 yards in that game with one TD, and rushing for another. Brandon Summers is very athletic and could figure into the mix too. John Goolsby is a big prospect at 6-5 215-pounds and looks to be the 3rd quarterback on the depth chart.
Running Backs Clearly the strength of the Rockets this year is at running back. No other MAC team, and few Division I-A teams in the country have the talent and depth as UT. Jalen Parmele averaged nearly 5-yards per carry last year, begins this fall as the starter. He is a big kid at 6-foot 225-pounds. Richard Davis is a change of pace back, averaged 7-yards per carry in ’05 and brings a flare with his running game. Scooter McDougle was the star of the 2004 championship team and returns after suffering a knee injury in the championship game at the end of that season. He is a real load at 5-10 250-pounds. Redshirt freshman Dajuane Collins was a top national RB prospect from New Jersey and looked great during spring drills. If that’s not enough, sophomore Raymond Williams, Ohio’s Mr. Football Award Winner two years ago, is the 5th back in the rotation. Look for Toledo to be much better than their 217-rushing yards per game average.
Receivers/Tight Ends Chris Hopkins returns after earning all conference honors at TE. The big 6-5 260-pounder is on the watch list for many NFL scouts. There is tremendous TE talent with proven players Josh Powell and John Allen as backups. Powell is a superb blocker with receiving skills while Allen had five TDs last year as a freshman walk-on. At receiver, Steve Odom is on pace to break almost all school records for receiving and TDs. Andrew Hawkins, Nick Moore, DJ Nichols, Trumaine Smith, Andre Redd and David Washington also return. Overall, Toledo returns players who produced 25 of their 30 TD receptions. There is size and speed across the board - this is a rock solid receiving unit.
Offensive Linemen If Toledo’s running back unit is not their strongest and deepest position on the team, then it would have to be the offensive line. The Rockets have had solid O-line play for years now and this season will be no different. UT averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season and produced 20 rushing TDs behind this front fortress. Toledo only gave up 13 QB sacks on 378 passing attempts (3%). John Greco returns after earning all conference honors while David Perkins, Jerry Aguwa and Hassan Adebesin also return as starters. There is a plethora of size as Toledo is three-deep within this area - The three-deep lineup averaged 6-4 305 per man. On paper, Toledo has the MAC’s top offensive line.
Defensive Linemen The defense made one of the biggest turnarounds in the NCAA last season. The Rockets ranked 89th nationally in total during the 2004 campaign, but under the direction of defensive guru Tim Rose, UT led the MAC last year in total defense and ranked 21st nationally. The big change started with better play from the defensive line. Six players return from that unit including all three starters, JP Bekasiak, Patrick Clark and Sean Williamson. DT Tyree Pollard has moved over to the offense line while Alfred Martin returns after missing the ’05 season. Several impressive true freshmen will figure into the depth chart this fall led by Nate Cole and Skylaar Constant.
Linebackers Toledo lost two terrific playmakers to graduation, Anthony Jordan and David Thomas. Each had size and leadership qualities that will be missed and each played ILB in the 3-4 alignment. This season, OLB Mike Alston will make a run at the conference defensive player of the year award if he continues his dominating play from last year’s GMAC Bowl where he earned the defensive player of the game award. Alston (6-2, 220), brings size and 4.45/40 speed from the outside. Mike Chamberlain and Greg Hay are the other OLBs while Keith Forestal, Steven Morrison and Eric Heller are inside. If the Rockets get good play from the ILBs this will once again be a terrific defensive unit after ranking #2 in the MAC in rush defense last year.
Defensive Backs Antonio Malone had a really big senior season last fall – he is the only CB who doesn’t return. The big loss in the defensive backfield is safety Keon Jackson who has since moved on to the NFL. The coaching staff if very excited about safeties Lester Richmond, Chris Faison and Tyrrell Herbert. Nigel Morris, who has received some preseason hype, is a solid corner while Keiron Brown and Walter Atkins man the other corner. Toledo signed six defensive backs in the 2005 class so a few true freshmen may figure into the mix this fall. One player to watch this fall is true freshman Barry Church, the star of a very solid recruiting class.
Special Teams Toledo has some solid special teams play behind veteran punter Brett Kern. PK Jason Robbins has graduated leaving those duties to Mike Kripinsky or true freshman Alex Steigerwald. Steve Odom is a very dangerous kick return specialist as UT finished 2nd in the MAC in kickoff returns and 4th in the league in kick coverage.
Final Thoughts There is no reason why Toledo shouldn’t earn their fifth bowl during Amstutz’ six-year tenure. Offensively, Toledo will miss Bruce Gradkowski – his grit, his talent and his leadership. Cochran doesn’t have to do everything that Gradkowski did, but he cannot make mistakes. Considering the returning talent around him at RB, OL and receiving, there is no reason why this offense shouldn’t average at least 35-points per game, maybe even more. Toledo should have one of the better defenses in the league but their ILBs are the unknown piece entering the season. If two or three players can step up in that area, the Rockets will once again be a top defensive unit in the MAC. Overall, this is a very solid program that will field a competitive team against almost any BCS school. Winning at NIU in November may be the difference between a divisional title or for an at-large bid with one of the MAC’s three bowl partners. Anything less than a MAC title would be considered a disappointment.
Mark it down! Toledo will beat at least one, and possibly two of their three BCS non-conference opponents. Beating Kansas at home (where UT is 32-2 at the Glass Bowl since 2000) is a must. Stealing a win at Iowa State or at Pitt is not out of the question.
Schedule Analysis The Rockets have a splendid non-conference schedule with games that are challenging, yet games they can win. Hosting Kansas and traveling to Iowa State and Pitt provides UT multiple chances to play (and beat) good teams from BCS leagues. A non-conference home game with I-AA power McNeese State will prove to be very tricky. Divisional crossover games are hosting Akron & BGSU while traveling to Kent State. Overall, the Rockets have a very favorable schedule.
Most Important Game At Western Michigan on September 9. Tom Amstutz preaches taking care of business within the conference and especially refers to divisional rivals as "championship games." Playing on the road in week #2 against a much improved Bronco program could become very interesting since this is Western’s home opener and traditionally they have huge crowds early in the season.