Head coach Matt Campbell enters his third season at the helm of the Toledo Rockets with an overall record of 17-9 since taking over the program from Tim Beckman prior to the 2011 Military Bowl. Considered one of the top young coaches in college football when hired, Bearcat fans know full well Campbell is capable of putting together a game plan to beat Cincinnati like he did in 2012 when the Rockets knocked off a Butch Jones lead Bearcats team 29-23 in the Glass Bowl.
However, since beating the Bearcats, Campbell has seen his team go 9-8 and miss out on a bowl game last season. There have been some changes to the Rockets staff on both sides of the football with the biggest coming on defense with new defensive coordinator Jon Heacock who severed as Purdue’s secondary coach last season.
On offense Jason Candle now has full control of what happens after serving as Co-Offensive coordinator last season with departed quarterback coach Scott Isphording (Ohio). Also new on the offensive side of the ball is running back coach Anthony Johnson and tight ends coach Bryan Gasser who moves to the field after serving as the Rockets Director of High School Relations last season.
This is still a young staff and while Campbell may have lost some of his early shine, he’s still a bright coach who knows how to get a team up for a big game. Only losing nine seniors from last season’s two-deep, Campbell has a team picked to win the MAC West Division title this season.
All eyes will be on transfer quarterback Phillip Ely who left Alabama in the spring of 2013 for Toledo. While the majority of those in the media have already handed Ely the job, two other signal callers are looking to have something to say as sophomores Logan Woodside and Michael Julian look to turn a few heads in camp. Woodside is the only one of the two with some experience as he completed 21 passes for 240-yards and one touchdown last season. But Julian is a freak athlete at 6-foot-5, 190-pounds who can run the read option.
Gone from last year’s team is leading receiver Bernard Reedy who pulled down 62 balls for 840 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago. However, Alonzo Russell does return and should be the go-to guy for the Rockets having already pulled down 115 balls for 1,688 yards. At running back the Rockets will turn to sophomore Kareem Hunt who rushed for 866 yards and six touchdowns last season behind team leading rusher David Fluellen.
The biggest concern when looking at the Rockets offense verses the Bearcats is the battle in the trenches. Toledo will return a veteran offensive line already playing in their third game of the season when they take the field in Paul Brown stadium. The Bearcats will be breaking in a few players in the interior of their defensive line that could help the Rockets early in this battle.
The strength on the Rockets defense is its linebacker play as senior Junior Sylvestre (118 tackles) and junior Chase Murdock (109 tackles) both return. Trent Voss posted 33 solo tackles in the first seven games before being lost for the season to an injury. Last season on the defensive line redshirt freshman Treyvon Hester played in all 12 games earning third-team All-MAC honors with 39 tackles (7.5 for loss – 3.5 sacks). He’ll be joined on the inside by junior Orion Jones who posted 19 tackles a year ago.
In the secondary the Rockets like to use defensive backs in the six-foot range and that should help them some against the Bearcats strength at receiver. Cheatham Norrils is the team’s top cornerback and coming off a 52 tackle season. He’ll be joined by Jordan Martin (6-foot-2, 192-pounds), Chaz Whittaker (6-foot-2, 200-pounds) and Jordan Haden to form a solid group with some experience.
Gone is Reedy who posted 690-yards in kick returns last season. Kicker Jeremiah Detmer returns at hitting on 95-percent of his field goals a year ago with an impressive 6-of-6 from 40-49 yards. The biggest question will be if sophomore Nick Ellis can stay on top of the preseason depth chart. Ellis is a walk-on who has yet to play in a game the past two seasons.