Rockets get fresh start under Campbell
Everything is new and fresh and young in springtime, and with the Rockets, that includes the head coach. Former assistant Matt Campbell took over this team on an interim basis last December when former head coach Tim Beckman left to take the Illinois job, and Campbell was soon elevated to the top post on a permanent basis.
That makes him new, and his mere 32 years on the planet make him young and fresh -- the youngest Division I head coach in the country. That does not make Campbell timid or reserved in his approach to putting his stamp on the program as the Rockets go through spring workouts. When they emerge from a month of practice, they will clearly be Matt Campbell's Rockets, operating under a very familiar set of guidelines.
"At Toledo, your goals and expectations are always going to be playing for a MAC Championship, winning a bowl game and getting the team GPA to as close to 3.0 as possible," Campbell said. "Those goals have been set in stone for the last three years, and it's something we still aspire to. We have not reached all those goals yet, and I think it's something that is really motivating us this off-season."
Campbell inherits a team that went 9-4 in 2011, won a bowl game and came very close to claiming the Mid-American Conference West Division title. The Rockets return plenty of talent and experience, and certainly enough to get them a division title and a berth in the MAC championship game in 2012.
Campbell is not shy about his evaluation of the stock on hand.
"We have a wealth of experience, guys who have played a lot of football and have been extremely productive, whether as starters or in important reserve roles," he said as Toledo started spring work.
Toledo has to use the spring sessions to figure out replacements for seven starters on offense, including All-American wide receiver/kick returner Eric Page, and six defensive starters. Campbell is optimistic that he will find the right guys from the pool of talent he has at his disposal.
"One thing we have been able to do here is play a lot of kids, whether as starters or in critical game situations," Campbell said. "I think that getting all 105 guys on the same page with the same mission and being able to excite them and get them ready to go on a day-to-day basis is the challenge for any head football coach."
Although there are a few positions on both sides of the ball where veteran players clearly have a considerable edge, Campbell has opened up the competition at every post during spring ball. He wants even the most veteran players to earn a spot.
"We have always said that going into each part of the season, we leave it up to competition to decide who is rising to the challenge," Campbell said.
Cambpell youngest head coach in NCAA Division I
--Toledo head coach Matt Campbell is the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I (FBS), a full three years younger than the next youngest coach, Willie Taggart of Western Kentucky, who is 35.
--The Rockets look to be explosive again on offense after finishing the 2011 season by scoring at least 40 points in six straight games. Toledo averaged 51.5 points per game over that stretch and 42.2 ppg for the season, eighth-best in the country.
KEY QUESTIONS: When you lose an All-American like WR/KR Eric Page, the void is significant. When Page did not have the ball in his hands last season, he was still drawing plenty of defensive attention as a decoy.
The Rockets go into spring workouts hoping that junior WR Bernard Reedy can at least fill some of the role that Page occupied. Reedy caught three touchdown passes in Toledo's 42-41 victory over Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl, and will need to be that kind of impact player on a regular basis in 2012.
The other major question facing the Rockets involves the running back position, where a pair of 1,000-yard rushers are gone and junior RB David Fluellen gets the first crack at winning the workhorse job. He had 493 yards last season in a backup role.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Bernard Reedy -- After putting on a show in the Military Bowl win over Air Force, Reedy needs to show that was not a fluke and provide encore type performances throughout the season. His development and level of play this spring will be a key indicator of how big a role he plays in the fall.
RB David Fluellen -- After serving an extended term as a backup to RB Adonis Thomas and RB Morgan Williams, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the Rockets at some point in their careers, Fluellen gets first crack at being the featured back in 2012. This spring the Toledo coaches will watch his effort, and ability to gain yardage after contact.
WR James Green -- Since there's plenty of room for play-makers on the outside, Green gets to use the spring workouts to demonstrate that he belongs on the field on a regular basis. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but needs to be consistent to earn full-time status.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a great mix of juniors and seniors in leadership positions on our team. I think we are a young football team in a lot of areas, but we have great talent and great leadership so I think we have an opportunity to be a really solid football team. I am really excited about how our coaching staff is meshing, too. It's an exciting time in our program and we look forward to taking the next step." -- Toledo coach Matt Campbell on leading his team into spring workouts.
Strategy And Personnel
2012 OUTLOOK: The Rockets might look significantly challenged on paper, since they must replace 13 starters, including WR/KR Eric Page, who is headed for the NFL. What makes the situation different for Toledo is that this team has played a ton of young players over the past two seasons, and many of them seem like they can be plugged right in and the Rockets won't miss a beat. The Rockets have a wealth of experience and depth at quarterback, and that will be one of the key reasons they emerge as a likely favorite to win the MAC's West Division title in 2012. The defense will be improved simply by the development of some very skilled recent recruits. If the energy of young head coach Matt Campbell translates well in the locker room, Toledo could be headed for big things in the coming season.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Rockets have the luxury of returning two starter-caliber quarterbacks with significant experience. Senior Austin Dantin and junior Terrance Owens have split time over the past two seasons, and both have been very effective. If that's the approach again, there's no reason it should not work well.
RB David Fluellen needs to show he can earn and deserve the starting job over the spring, while WR Bernard Reedy has to become the big-play guy on the outside. The line has a couple of holes to fill, but head coach Matt Campbell seems convinced that when spring workouts end, OT A.J. Lindeman and OT Josh Hendershot will have won the starting roles and calmed the worries. WR Cordale Scott has been moved to tight end to give that position more depth and athleticism.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: This unit has made strides in recent seasons, so the Rockets no longer go into most games feeling pressured offensively to pick up most of the slack. Coach Matt Campbell is also pretty confident he has the pieces to sculpt a very effective group. "From a defensive standpoint, we have a wealth of experience, guys who have played a lot of football and have been extremely productive," Campbell said. Two-time all-conference DE T.J. Fatinikun leads the charge up front, joined by fellow senior DE Hank Keighley. The tackle spots are rich in experience with junior Elijah Jones, seniors Danny Farr and Phil Lewis, and junior Ben Pike.
In LB Dan Molls and LB Robert Bell, the Rockets have a pair of proven hitters and top pursuit guys. Molls had 143 tackles last season, 10th in the nation. The secondary looks strong with senior S Jermaine Robinson a three-year starter, and fifth-year senior S Mark Singer back after a medical redshirt year. Senior CB Byron Best and sophomore CB Jordan Haden lead a deep corps on the outside.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jeremiah Detmer has the inside track on handling all of the work after seeing time as the long field goal kicker and kickoff specialist in 2011. Junior college transfer PK/P Brad Dunavant is challenging Detmer, and pushing P Vince Penza for that role. The competition should sort things out over the month of spring work. WR Bernard Reedy and RB David Fluellen are the likely return men.
WR Corey Jones -- This star of the Pennsylvania high school ranks arrives at a time when the Rockets need immediate help at this position. When All-American WR/KR 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 -- Fresh off appearances in the state final or semifinal games in both football and basketball in his senior season, hometown product Norton gives the Rockets great size (6-8, 310) and is very athletic. Besides being the type of huge, physical force the Rockets have utilized to make their offense go, Norton is also 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 -- Toledo needs to develop the next generation of field leaders for its offense, and Blackburn seems headed for that kind of training. 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.
--WR Cordale Scott makes the move to tight end this spring to give the Rockets more athleticism and depth at the position.
--DE T.J. Fatinikun returns for spring ball after missing the final six games of the season with an arm injury. He is a two-time All- MAC pick and will be the leader of the Toledo pass rush.
--S Mark Singer returns healthy and battling for his old starting role after missing all of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury. Singer had 73 tackles and two interceptions in 13 starts at free safety in 2010.