Rockets Look for Ignition

It is never easy for one coach to replace another, especially when that coach has built a football program from the ground up. Toledo head man Tim Beckman believes he has his group on target as he heads into his second season at the helm of the Rockets.

As it turns out, life after Tom Amstutz won't be so bad after all. The Toledo fixture bowed out following the 2008 season after spending more than a generation with the program, first as a longtime assistant before taking over as the head coach in 2001.

His replacement, Tim Beckman, has earned praise for his job as a defensive assistant at Bowling Green, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State prior to being tabbed for his first lead job.

While Beckman is foremost a defensive-minded coach, the Rockets still managed to allow 452 points last fall, the second-most in school history. Yet Coach Beckman is set on putting his unique stamp on the Toledo football program. Taking over from Amstutz wasn't easy, but Beckman seems to have Toledo on the right track. And although not a defensive gem, one of the team's more impressive efforts last season was a 54-38 pasting of Colorado on national television.

It will take Beckman time to fully install his brand of football and get his type of recruits into the system. Toledo ended with a 5-7 record last year and saw its bowl hopes disappear with a 1-4 finish. Going into this fall, Beckman must replace 13 starters.

Sophomore Austin Dantin (6-2, 189) appears to be the favorite to take over from four-year starter Aaron Opelt at quarterback. Dantin was able to get valuable experience playing in his freshman season (962 passing yards) while Opelt was injured. The true freshman guided Toledo to wins over Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan, and aired it out for 326 yards against Bowling Green. In limited service, Dantin completed 66% of his passes and tossed four TD's last year, and is a competent runner when he needs to be.

Yet Dantin did not emerge from spring ball as the clear QB choice, so the position is still up for grabs. Senior backup Alex Pettee (6-2, 216) has gotten some throws in and has a good knowledge of the offense. Sophomore David Pasquale (6-2, 215) will likely get some snaps in the "Wildcat," while redshirt freshman Terrance Owens (6-3, 165) has experience with the option.

Junior running back Morgan Williams (5-11, 197) is back with nearly 1,500 career yards. He was demoted to backup duty last fall after leading the Rockets with 1,010 yards (including 330 against Miami of Ohio) and six touchdowns in 2008. Even in a limited role, Williams picked up 440 yards and averaged six yards a carry last fall. Williams is a slippery runner with surprising power. Junior Adonis Thomas (5-10, 175) is a speedy back that seems to hit the hole even before defenses know he has the ball, rushing for 151 yards last season. Sophomore Jake Walker (5-11, 210) and redshirt freshman Darius Reeves (6-1, 190) should also see action in 2010.

Freshman All-American Eric Page (5-10, 171) had a sensational year in 2009 with 82 receptions (tops among all college freshmen) for 1,159 yards and seven touchdowns. He is a smart player with great route-running ability. Page made 11 receptions against the Purdue defense and 11 vs. Ball State. Page will have to step up and help bring the Rockets' group of receivers along this fall, as there isn't much depth. Juniors Kenny Stafford (6-4, 195) and Tim Cortazzo (6-1, 180), along with sophomores Jimmy Davidson (6-4, 201) and Julian Bellinger (6-1, 170) look for expanded roles come September.

Freshman James Green (6-3, 200), who chose Toledo over the University of Minnesota, showed dedication by getting to school in time for spring drills. Green is eager to show what he can do, although he will have to be granted a hardship waver by the NCAA to be eligible this fall. Additionally, Cordale Scott (6-4, 181) should make an impact after transferring from Illinois. Scott runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and was rated as the 37th-best receiver in the nation coming out of high school by Scout.com.

Tight end Danny Noble (6-5, 233, Jr.) is athletic and provides a good target over the middle, catching 26 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown last year. While not a great blocker, playing more like a big wide receiver than a tight end, Noble has good hands and will be a valuable asset in clutch situations.

The Rockets are hoping that with the experience on the offensive line everything else will fall into place. Toledo will feature four linemen who started in every game last year. Senior center Kevin Kowalski (6-4, 299) is a four-year starter who made the successful transition to the middle after starting 22 games at right guard his first two seasons. Nate Cole (6-2, 306) is another heavyweight veteran at guard. Giant juniors Mike VanDerMeulen (6-7, 304) and John Morookian (6-5, 301) are penciled in at the tackles. Morookian has 23 starts to his credit on the right side of the Rocket offense. Junior Phillipkeith Manley (6-5, 310) had the inside track to the open spot at left guard.

Meanwhile, Toledo is looking for improvement from its defense, which allowed 37.7 points a game last year, giving up 52 to Purdue, 58 to Western Michigan, and 56 to Central Michigan. Given Coach Beckman's defensive orientation, look for that to change soon. Mike Ward and Paul Nichols are the co-defensive coordinators and it will be their job to get their unit playing up to expectations.

The first step towards that improvement was when the defensive front spent the winter in the weight room. The beefed-up line hopes to clog the middle more, allowing the linebackers to make plays. In addition, Beckman redshirted five linemen last year and that move alone will create much better depth. Senior Alex Johnson's (6-2, 259) strength is pass rushing, and he looks to start at one end, and Douglas Westbrook (6-3, 233, Sr.) penetrated opposing backfields for eight tackles for loss, exactly what the Rockets need more of.

T.J. Fatinikun (6-2, 230, So.) is a young talent that the Toledo coaches have their eyes on. He had 21 tackles in limited duty last fall and very well could be starting at some point in the season. Three players coming off redshirts, Hank Keighley (6-4, 230, Jr.), Christian Smith (6-2, 240, Fr.), and Ben Steele (6-4, 260, Fr.), will vie for playing time. Juniors Johnie Roberts (6-3, 290), Malcolm Riley (6-3, 267) and Johnathan Lamb (6-4, 272) will battle for the two tackle positions, while junior college transfer Phil Lewis (6-3, 285) looks to make an immediate impact. Ben Pike (6-3, 245, Fr.) is another former redshirt that is ready to be a force for the Toledo defense. Senior linebacker Archie Donald (6-2, 244) was recognized on the third-team All-Mid-American Conference team last year (116 tackles) and will need to have a good encore season this fall. Donald has led his team in tackles for two consecutive years. Senior Terrell Willis (6-1, 228) is a converted defensive end and Dan Molls (6-1, 222, So.) will also see playing time.

The loss of four-time All-MAC star Barry Church (who went to the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL) will hurt in the secondary, but Junior Isaiah Ballad (5-11, 210) has the combination of speed and hitting ability that make him a natural at the hybrid "Star" position. Ballad excelled on special teams for Toledo last year. Sophomores Byron Best (5-9, 197) and Daxton Swanson (5-10, 180) started as freshmen and should play considerably more at cornerback, and Iowa transfer Diauntae Morrow (6-0, 205, So.), senior Myshan Veasley-Pettis (5-11, 157) and JC transfer Taikwon Paige (5-11, 175) will be in the mix as well. (An injury limited Swanson's action in the spring but he should be fine and ready to go for the season.) Jermaine Robinson (6-3, 188, So.) started 10 games as a freshman at free safety, recording 58 tackles and 3 sacks. Junior Mark Singer (6-1, 194) is slated to be the strong safety.

A decision will have to be made between juniors Ryan Casano (5-10, 178) and Andrew Weber at placekicker. Bill Claus (6-0, 189, Jr.) returns as punter after averaging 37.4 yards a kick last campaign. Eric Page will once again be one of the top return men in the MAC, but look for Coach Beckman to split Page's return duty to keep him fresh.

Toledo has a challenging non-conference schedule, although Arizona did agree to come to Toledo this fall. The Rockets also play at Purdue and Boise State, while getting Wyoming at home as well.

Toledo hosts Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Ball State and Kent State in the MAC while traveling to Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Ohio and Northern Illinois. The conference openers with Ohio and Western Michigan will be the keys to Toledo's hopes for a division crown.

Our next opponent preview will be Louisiana Tech, which is set to run Sunday, August 8.

2010 schedule

• Sept. 3 Arizona

• Sept. 11 at Ohio

• Sept. 18 at Western Michigan

• Sept. 25 at Purdue

• Oct. 2 Wyoming

• Oct. 9 at Boise St.

• Oct. 16 Kent St.

• Oct. 23 Ball St.

• Oct. 30 at Eastern Michigan

• Nov. 9 at Northern Illinois

• Nov. 17 Bowling Green

• Nov. 26 Central Michigan


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