As consistent as Toledo has been as a program — five consecutive winning seasons — the Rockets are more than 10 years removed from their last MAC championship and last division title. After winning nine games and finishing 7-1 in the league, Toledo has the goods to contend again, provided the Rockets can find an answer on a completely rebuilt offensive line.
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Previewing Toledo’s Offense in 2015
The most important person around the Rockets’ program in the offseason was offensive line coach Tom Manning, since his unit likely holds the key to Toledo’s 2015 season. The Rockets have a wealth of experienced and proven skill position players but lost five senior starters on the offensive line, including three all-conference performers.
The rebuild could not be more significant. Left tackle Storm Norton filled in for three games last season due to an injury, but beyond him the Rockets hope to get rapid development and productive play from a host of newcomers. Depending on that line will be running back Kareem Hunt, a first team all-conference pick and 1,600-yard rusher a season ago who had 271 yards and five touchdowns in the GoDaddy Bowl win over Arkansas State.
Phillip Ely and Logan Woodside both started and were productive at quarterback last season before injuries forced them to the sidelines. Ely returns from knee surgery, while Woodside rehabs a serious ankle injury. Ely, who transferred from Alabama two years ago, might have the edge in the derby to earn the starting job, but both he and Woodside have demonstrated they can make this offense explosive.
The fireworks through the air usually involve three-time all-conference wide receiver Alonzo Russell, a 6'4" target who caught 51 passes for 770 yards and eight scores last season. Speedy slot receiver Corey Jones had a team-high 68 receptions a year ago.
Previewing Toledo’s Defense in 2015
Toledo’s deck is full of options on this side of the ball, where depth and athleticism are plentiful. The crew up front comprises the deepest and likely the most talented unit in the program, and the group is led by returning all-conference tackles Treyvon Hester and Orion Jones. End Trent Voss led MAC linemen in tackles last season with 77. Adding depth at tackle are Chris Collins and Marquise Moore, both of whom have starting experience, while returning starter Allen Covington had 29 stops last season at end.
The Rockets return veteran Chase Murdock at linebacker, where he could be joined by Jaylen Coleman, Ju’Wuan Woodley or Zach Quinn once the position battles play out.
After being decimated by injuries the last two seasons, the secondary boasts four cornerbacks with significant starting credentials — Cheatham Norrils and Cameron Cole, the 2013 starters who missed last season with injuries, and 2014 starters Jordan Martin and Christian Dukes. The safeties will come from the group of Chaz Whittaker, UAB transfer Rolan Milligan, DeJuan Rogers and Delando Johnson.
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Previewing Toledo’s Specialists in 2015
The kicking game is a big question mark after the departure of three-time All-MAC kicker Jeremiah Detmer. Sophomore Sam Vucelich has the inside track to man that position. Junior Nick Ellis returns at punter, but he needs to improve on his league-worst 36.6-yard average. The strength of the special teams is likely the return game. Jones averaged 11.8 yards on his league-high 24 punt returns in 2014.
Toledo has the luxury of playing seven home games in 2015, and the Rockets return of plenty of playmakers on defense and some extremely talented individuals at running back and receiver. But all of the optimism has to be tempered by the fact that Toledo has gone from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country last year with five senior starters to having one of the least experienced this time around. The development of that new line is the key to the season. If the offensive line grows up fast, the Rockets should be a championship-caliber team in 2015.