Campbell juggles new job, recruiting class

Consider the challenge that was facing coach Matt Campbell in early December. Now that his first recruiting class — 31 players strong — is part of the fold, Campbell can finally take a breath and look back at the hectic, and often chaotic past two months.

Campbell was the Rockets’ young, innovative offensive coordinator when former Toledo Coach Tim Beckman abruptly left took the Illinois job, just days after the Rockets had been invited to face Air Force in the Military Bowl.

On Beckman’s exit, Campbell was named the interim coach to get the team through the bowl. Campbell was soon promoted and became the nation’s youngest FBS head coach.

While racing at breakneck speed to ready the team for the bowl, Campbell also worked at holding the recruiting class together. Once the Rockets took a 42-41 victory over Air Force in the bowl, it was back to recruiting, and putting together a permanent staff.

His plans for 2012 took a huge hit shortly after the bowl when record-setting receiver and return man Eric Page announced he would be leave Toledo for the NFL. Campbell had lost his primary offensive weapon.

That put an even bigger emphasis on recruiting the best class possible, lousy circumstances or not. What Campbell assembled, with the aid of his new staff, is one of the top-rated recruiting classes in the Mid-American Conference, according to several recruiting services.

While saying that the recruiting haul addressed the specific needs of the Rockets, Campbell added he hopes it meets his long-term objective of taking “our program from good to great.”

TOP OF THE CLASS

WR Corey Jones (Penn Hills, Pittsburgh, Pa.) — When All-American receiver and return man Eric Page announced he was leaving a year early to enter the NFL draft, the door opened for the next dynamic playmaker to take over the lead role in the Toledo offense. That gave Jones (5-8, 165), the top-rated recruit in the Toledo class, the opportunity to follow Page’s track into the Toledo record book, and possibly to the NFL beyond. In high school, Jones had 2,135 receiving yards on 160 receptions and 39 touchdowns. He is explosive and instinctive and in the right place to showcase those skills.

-OL Storm Norton (Whitmer, Toledo, Oh.) — The Rockets get a local product who has great size (6-8, 310) and is very athletic. Besides being the type of huge, physical force the Rockets have used to make their offense go, Norton also is a gifted athlete with letters in basketball and track. If the Rockets can afford to give him a redshirt year, Norton likely has multiple all-conference seasons ahead of him.

-QB Brian Blackburn (Detroit Crockett, Sterling Heights, Mich.) — The Rockets have at least two starter-caliber quarterbacks in the program, so they bring in the big, physical Blackburn (6-6, 225) with the intention of giving him a redshirt year to learn the system. Blackburn passed for 2,539 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior, and added five rushing touchdowns. He possesses a big-time arm and the size to see over the offensive front while working from the pocket.

NOTES, QUOTES

WR Page leaves year early for NFL Draft

–All-American WR/KR Eric Page left Toledo a year early to enter the NFL draft. Page was the most prolific receiver and return man in school history. In his three seasons with the Rockets, Page caught 306 passes for 3,446 yards. He scored 31 touchdowns, with four coming on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.

–The Rockets signed four offensive linemen in their 2012 recruiting class, and all of them are at least 6-6 in height. The smallest member of the class might be the biggest beneficiary of that massive blocking unit — WR Corey Jones, a 5-8, 165-pound jitterbug who should get the opportunity to play right away.

–The Toledo recruiting class of 31 players includes four who come in as “preferred walk-ons”.

SPRING SNAPSHOT:

Practice priorities: The Rockets need the spring practice time to get the new staff to know the players, and to bring along the backups on the offensive and defensive lines that will be expected to step into starter roles. The on-going competition at quarterback, where both Austin Dantin and Terrence Owens have made multiple starts, enters a new chapter since Coach Matt Campbell has not indicated if he is a fan of the platoon system used by previous Coach Tim Beckman.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “This recruiting class attacks every area of need on our football team. I feel like our staff did a great job of finding quality young men with great character, a passion for the game and a commitment to excellence in the classroom.” — Toledo first-year Coach Matt Campbell.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY LOSSES: None of the departures will have the impact that the early exit of WR/KR Eric Page did. Page chose to enter the NFL draft and leave Toledo after three seasons where he collected 306 passes for 3,446 yards. Page scored 31 touchdowns in his career, with five of those coming as a returner. The offense was built around exploiting his skills, or taking advantage of the double-teams he attracted. The Rockets have to revise the plan this spring, minus Page. They also have to re-work the offensive front, where OT Mike Van Der Meulen is gone after starting 50 consecutive games and helping the offense rank eighth nationally.

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2012:

WR Bernard Reedy — After his stunning performance in the Military Bowl win over Air Force, the junior-to-be is likely the heir to former Rocket WR Eric Page as this team’s play-maker. Reedy had three touchdown receptions in the 42-41 Toledo win in the bowl, including the eventual game-winner with five minutes left.

Brad Dunavant — The Rockets snatched Dunavant from the junior college ranks after he played one season at Trinity Valley in Texas. Toledo needed help right away to shore up its punting game, and Dunavant will be under considerable pressure to address that urgent need.

DL T.J. Fatinikun — Despite missing the final six games of the 2011 season because of injury, Fatinikun was still awarded second-team all-conference honors. He is quick and athletic and likely the Rockets’ best pass rusher. When healthy, Fatinikun should give some spark to a defense in need of an offseason upgrade.

LB Dan Molls — The Rockets are expecting a block buster senior season from Molls, who missed a big chunk of the 2011 season with a leg injury. After returning, Molls had a 17-tackle game against Northern Illinois and averaged just under 10 stops per game.

PLAYER NOTES

–OL A.J. Lindeman was a candidate for the Burlsworth Trophy, which honors a top former walk-on player who achieves a significant role in his career. The 6-6, 300-pound Lindeman walked on at Toledo in 2008 and eventually earned a scholarship in 2010. He played in every game in the 2011 season as a backup right tackle. Lindeman carries a 3.457 GPA in engineering.

–C Zac Kerin, who carried ac3.55 GPA in civil engineering, was a second-team all-Academic choice by the Mid-American Conference. Kerin was a key part of the Toledo offense that was ninth in the nation in scoring at 42.3 points per game and eighth nationally in total offense with 493.2 yard per game.