Expectations High for the Rockets

August 14th, 2019 Posted in The Rockets
Toledo picked to finish first in MAC West Division

By Paul Helgren

The 2018 Rockets defense shows its strength on the field against Bowling Green State University.

If recent history has any bearing, then UToledo Head Football Coach Jason Candle should be fine with where some media predictions are placing his Rockets to finish this season.

Members of the media contingent of the West Division of the Mid-American Conference have picked Toledo to win the West Division MAC. Most of the preseason football magazine writers, who also attended the annual football media day at Ford Field this past July, picked the Rockets to win it, too.

The last time Toledo was picked to win the West Division was 2017. Candle and the Rockets won the division and the MAC Championship Game. Candle would certainly be happy if history repeated itself, but he has no delusions about the value of preseason prognostications.

“I think it gives us some validation that our hard work is paying off,” said Candle. “But where you start doesn’t have any indication of where you’ll finish. The goal is to be one of the last teams standing and make it to Ford Field in December (site of the MAC title game). That being said, it’s good that our players have that validation for the hard work they’ve put in during the offseason.”

The Rockets return 13 starters and 49 letter-winners from last season’s team, which went 7-6 and earned a berth into the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. It was the ninth straight winning season for the Rockets, one of only nine Bowl Championship Series programs in the country to achieve that feat.

Bryant Koback, above, in a game against Nevada last year, returns as a veteran running back for the Toledo Rockets.

Among the top returning veterans on the offense are All-MAC senior tight end Reggie Gilliam, a pair of quarterbacks with starting experience, Mitchell Guadagni and Eli Peters, and running backs Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour. On defense, nine players with at least 30 tackles are back, led by senior safety Kahlil Robinson, senior linebacker Jordan Fisher, senior safety DeDarallo Blue, and sophomore defensive end Jamal Hines.

“This is a confident team right now, a close-knit group that likes to go to work with each other,” said Candle. “When you have that combined with the talent we have, you have a great chance for a special season.”

Toledo opens the season at Kentucky on Aug. 31. Following an early-season bye week, the Rockets then host Murray State in the home opener on Sept. 14.


An overview of the Rockets by position, heading into 2019 season

Quarterback

A spirited battle at the quarterback position is likely with as many as five players vying to become the Rockets’ chief signal-caller.

Senior Mitchell Guadagni and junior Eli Peters both saw significant action last season. Guadagni started seven games before an injury ended his season. He threw for 1,053 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing 57.5 percent of his passes, leading the Mid-American Conference in passing efficiency. He also ran for 428 yards and three scores. He is 100 percent healthy now. Peters stepped in and started six games in 2018, completing 55.1 percent of his tosses for 1,837 yards and 18 TDs.

Redshirt freshmen Carter Bradley and Cross Wilkinson have a year in the system now and will have an opportunity to prove themselves. Bradley missed spring practice due to an injury but is back on the field now. True freshman Dequan Finn, named “Mr. Football” in the state of Michigan in 2018, enrolled last January and joined the team for winter workouts and spring practice.

Offensive Line

The Rockets return two senior starters on the offensive line, 6-8, 340-pound left tackle Cameron Bell and 6-4, 315-pound right guard Yazeed Atariwa. Unfortunately, senior center Bryce Harris, a second-team All-MAC pick in 2018, is out for the season due to an injury suffered prior to training camp. Other experienced players returning are juniors Brandon Heidecker, Luke Doerger and Joshua Fenn, and sophomores Mitchell Berg and Kelvin Ateman.

Newcomers looking to crack into the rotation are redshirt freshmen Nick Rosi and Tyler Long, true freshmen Michael Bergen and Parker Bisek, and junior college transfer Kendall Major.

Running Back

At running back, sophomore Bryant Koback and junior Shakif Seymour have established themselves as strong contenders to be featured in next year’s rotation. Koback led the Rockets with 917 yards and 14 TDs as a redshirt freshman in 2018, while Seymour added 565 yards and five scores, giving him 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Senior Ronnie Jones rushed for 144 yards in 2018. Now in his second season at running back after switching from safety, Jones could see additional opportunities to carry the ball this fall. Candle also will keep an eye on the development of true freshmen Jacquez Stuart and Micah Kelly.

Wide Receiver

The receiving corps will have a new look with the graduation of the All-MAC trio of Cody Thompson, Diontae Johnson and Jon’Vea Johnson. The most experienced returner is senior Desmond Phillips, a quick slot receiver who caught 27 passes last year. Other returning veterans include juniors Danzel McKinley-Lewis and Bryce Mitchell, and senior Andrew Davis. McKinley-Lewis started the first three games last year before an injury kept him out for the remainder of the season. He caught 23 passes as a sophomore starter in 2017. Mitchell has played in 27 games in two seasons as a Rocket, while Davis has battled injuries throughout much of his career.

Other returners looking to join the regular rotation at receiver include sophomores Neru N’Shaka, Darius Corbett and Nick Kovacs, and redshirt freshmen Jalin Cooper and Devin Maddox.

Tight End

Toledo looks solid at tight end with the return of senior Reggie Gilliam, a second-team All-MAC choice in 2018. Gilliam caught just six passes last season but three were for touchdowns. In addition, he is a fine blocker and led the nation with four blocked kicks on special teams. Junior Drew Rosi and sophomore Jamal Turner are also back after seeing significant playing time last season.

Defensive Line

Eleven letter-winners return to Toledo’s defensive line, the most of any position on the team. Two returning starters are among them­—senior defensive tackle Nate Childress, a two-year starter who had 32 tackles in 2018, and sophomore defensive end Jamal Hines, who had 49 tackles and 9.0 tackles for loss in his rookie campaign.

Other defensive linemen who were part of the regular rotation in 2018 include senior Willie Ross (24 tackles); junior Tyrone Chambers (14 tackles); and sophomores Desjuan Johnson (17 tackles), Devonte Dunn (17 tackles) and Terrance Taylor (16 tackles).

Also expected to be in the mix for playing time this season are seniors Melvin Johnson and Evander Craft, junior David Hood, sophomores Derrius Mullins and Nate Givhan, and redshirt freshman Devan Rogers.

Secondary

Another experienced part of Toledo’s defense is its secondary, with three starters returning in 2019, along with many others who have seen significant action. 

Senior safety Kahlil Robinson has picked off five passes in his career and was second on the team with 69 tackles in 2018. Fellow senior DeDarallo Blue has started 27 games at safety, compiling 103 tackles in his career. Junior cornerback Justin Clark had 35 tackles and four pass breakups as a starter last season. Other experienced safeties include junior Tycen Anderson (44 tackles in 2018) and sophomores Zachary Ford (32 tackles, three breakups), and Saeed Holt (36 tackles). Returning cornerbacks include juniors Samuel Womack and Jordan Hendy, and sophomore DeAmonte King.

Newcomers battling for playing time at safety include junior Erik Davis, redshirt freshmen Nate Bauer and Caleb Sutherland, and freshman Mike Coleman. In the mix at cornerback are junior Jordan Hendy, sophomore transfer Troy Simon, redshirt freshman Jalynn Williams and freshman Chris McDonald.

Linebacker

Senior Jordan Fisher is the top returner at linebacker. Fisher, a converted tight end, racked up 60 tackles in 2018 and looks to be a team leader this season. Other returning letter-winners vying for playing time are sophomores Dyontae Johnson, Daniel Bolden and A.J. Crider, as well as freshmen D’Andre Ragin and Jackson Barrow.

Special Teams

Sophomore D.J. Wellons, redshirt freshman Thomas Cluckey and freshman Evan Davis will get a chance to show if they are ready to replace Jameson Vest, Toledo’s all-time leading placekicker and a fixture in the lineup the past four seasons. Junior Bailey Flint, a two-year starter, returns at punter, as does junior Sean Mills at long snapper.    

Toledo has numerous speedsters to man the return positions, including seniors Danzel McKinley-Lewis, Desmond Phillips and Ronnie Jones, and redshirt freshmen Jalynn Williams and Devin Maddox.

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