Some new college football head coaches walk into situations where the cupboard is nearly empty. New Toledo coach Tim Beckman didnt inherit that problem. He did, however, take over a team that in 2008 won just three games overall and two in conference play. In a few weeks, he and his staff will get the opportunity to turn some pretty good talent into more Rocket victories.
Quarterback Aaron Opelt has a wealth of experience
Offense: After finishing next to last in MAC scoring statistics last season, Toledo will likely see some changes. However, any offensive changes should certainly incorporate the talents of tailbacks DaJuane Collins and Morgan Williams. Together, they were one of the leagues top rushing duos. Collins (5-10, 211,Sr.) had 700 yards rushing despite missing two games due to injury. In one of the games he missed, Williams (5-11, 195, So.) ran for an amazing 330 yards against Miami. He followed that with 153 yards in the finaleagainst neighboring Bowling Green and finished with 1,010 yards on the year.
Nonetheless, Toledo ranked in the middle of the MAC pack in overall rushing and was next-to-last in both passing and scoring two areas that could use improvement in 2009.
Quarterback Aaron Opelt, a three-year starter, has been climbing the ladder in several Toledo career passing categories. However, he failed to crack the MAC top 10 in passing efficiency last year. Opelts experience will be a definite plus, but Beckman and staff have no doubt been looking for ways to better cash in on the passing game, as well as get more consistent scoring.
Nick Moore is gone, but Opelt will again have a solid receiving target in Stephen Williams. The 6-5, 199-pound senior from Houston Texas is one of 20 returning starters (9 on offense, 9 on defense, a placekicker and a punter). Williams is a two-time All-MAC honoree. After grabbing 71 passes last year, he needs 73 more to break Toledo leader Lance Moores career reception record of 222. Other career records are also within striking distance.
Beyond Williams, the Rockets will need some younger and/or less experienced players to step up enough to pose alternative options and threats. Senior Tom Burzine (tight end) is the only other returning starter in the receiving corps. According to Beckman, the tight end spot will be an important part of the new offense, so depth provided by players like junior Matt Fought and sophomore Jerome Jones is more than appreciated.
Tight ends, of course, are equally important in a blocking role, and this group will be part of a veteran line. All five starters tackle to tackle return, and Beckman indicated the group made great strides in the spring. At the same time, he noted depth could be a concern along the O-line, so continued improvement and getting out of a very tough non-conference schedule healthy could be important.
DEFENSE: Improving the defense is likely a key to improving the Rockets record in 2009. They finished seventh in total defense in 2008 and next to last in rushing defense. Beckman not only wants improvement to stop the rush, he wants to generate a better pass rush, as well.
Senior Derrick Summers (6-5, 258), a linebacker two years ago and defensive end last year, was penciled in as a nose guard following spring drills. While he is the only player returning to a starting spot along the line, experience is available.
There is also experience at linebacker positions. In fact, it might be the strongest group in years. Junior Archie Donald (second in MAC in tackles) is considered the leader of the defense and senior Beau Brudzinski, according to Beckman, might be the toughest player on the squad. Darius Quinn (77 tackles in 2008) and some nice young talent give the Rockets some depth at the position.
The Rockets secondary is a mixture of youth and experience. One veteran, senior Barry Church, has already impressed a lot of people. He has three All-MAC first team honors to his credit as he heads into a final collegiate campaign. He could be just the second Toledo player ever to earn four All-MAC First Team awards.
Beckman thinks enough of Church to make a change. He is moving Church into a hybrid safety/linebacker position. We want to move Barry around and keep the opposing offenses guessing, Beckman said.
Another big playmaker in the secondary is strong safety Lester Richmond (60 tackles in 2008). The 6-5, 201-pound senior will be joined by sophomore safety Mark Singer.
Senior Walter Atkins and sophomore Kenny Veal were penciled in at corner spots as the Rockets headed into fall workouts. Atkins had 70 tackles as a sophomore, but missed most of 2008 due to injuries.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Alex Steigerwald handled field goals last year, while Brett Brodbeck did kickoffs. Steigerwald, a senior, has a career field goal percentage of 85.7 percent and nailed 23 straight successful field goals at one point. He will be challenged to improve his range in 2009 but kicked a 48-yarder in a huge 13-10 win last year at Michigan. Sophomore Bill Claus, who averaged 38.8 yards per punt in 2008, could face competition from walk-on challengers.
As for the return game, positions are up for grabs.
OTHER: There are 19 returning seniors on this years Rockets squad. The 2008 team started the year with just 10 seniors.
- New head coach Tim Beckman knows plenty about the Toledo program. He was an assistant at arch-rival Bowling Green from 1998-2004.
- The Rockets are official hosts for games against two elite football programs this year. Colorado (Big 12 Conference) will rumble into the Glass Bowl for a nationally-televised game (ESPN) Sept. 11. The Rockets are also the home team when they face Ohio State (Big 10 Conference) at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sept.19. The non-conference away schedule includes contests at Purdue (Sept. 5) and Florida International (Sept.26).