Spring, we are told, signals new life.
Not so last year with the University of Toledo football program. The Rockets opened spring practices with the same coaching staff, the same quarterback, and the same defensive direction as the year before.
Freshness will be restored today when the Rockets kick off their first of 14 practices ahead of the April 12 spring game. Coach Matt Campbell will divide his time scrutinizing the play of three quarterbacks vying to replace Terrance Owens and acclimating five new assistants. One of his new aides, defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, will use the coming days to introduce a template he used two years ago to energize Kent State’s defense.
Campbell, entering his sixth season at Toledo and third as head coach, is seeking a new beginning after a disappointing 7-5 campaign that left the Rockets out of the bowl season for the first time since 2009.
The depth chart shows three starters, which comes as no surprise. As the program transitions from the Owens and Austin Dantin eras, the slate has been wiped clean under new position coach Jason Candle.
Candle, entering his third season as offensive coordinator, is tasked with choosing between junior Phillip Ely, who sat out last year after his transfer from Alabama, sophomore Logan Woodside, who started one game in 2013, and redshirt freshman Michael Julian.
Ely is said to be a film junkie, Woodside a tenacious competitor, and Julian physically gifted.
In 2012, Dantin purportedly won a coin flip over Owens to start the opener at Arizona. The coaching staff needs to get creative this time in the absence of a three-sided coin. A suggestion: The candidate who most closely guesses the number of career passing yards of Bruce Gradkowski — UT’s last championship quarterback — gets the nod against New Hampshire. Hint: The answer is four digits and begins with 9.
Last year Campbell’s team was among 10 or so in major college football with no staff turnover. This offseason the Rockets endured two year’s worth of attrition. Campbell will break-in five new coaches — three on offense, two on defense. Staff overhaul can invigorate.
Two years ago UT women’s basketball coach Tricia Cullop lost two assistants and won a MAC title. Men’s coach Tod Kowalczyk, faced with the same predicament this season, also won. Campbell’s Mount Union Mafia was reduced to three when Stan Watson bolted for the Cleveland Browns.
The Purple Raiders suddenly are rivaled on staff by the Muskingum Mafia, an alliance of Heacock and linebackers coach Tyson Veidt.
Tom Matukewicz’s defense was trending upward at the midway point of his second season. Then the Rockets flatlined, surrendering on average 446 yards and 32 points over the final six games. Campbell was spared a tough decision when Matukewicz left to be head coach at Southeast Missouri State.
Enter Heacock, a respected name in the coaching incubator state of Ohio. He did miracle work in 2012 at Kent State, where his tutelage helped lift the Golden Flashes to the East division title and their first bowl game in 40 years. Heacock, who enters his 24th season as a coordinator or head coach, inherits adequate talent to overcome the program’s defensive futility. Returns on his hire could define Campbell’s tenure.
The defense’s backsliding doesn’t fall squarely on Matukewicz; leadership was also a problem. Only two seniors project to start, so some underclassmen must step up to assist All-MAC honorees Junior Sylvestre and Cheatham Norrils.
The return of playmaking linebacker Trent Voss, who missed the second half of the season with a broken arm, should help here.