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Experienced Rockets expected to win now

08/05/2014, 12:00am EDT
By NICHOLAS PIOTROWICZ BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Starting QB biggest unknown for UT

High expectations for UT football

Expectations are high for UT head coach Matt Campbell's more veteran team. Blade photo

Football officially began Monday for a University of Toledo squad that has real hopes of winning the school's first Mid-American Conference championship in a decade.

With the first fall practice sessions completed, here are five things to monitor ahead of UT's season opener against New Hampshire on Aug. 30 at the Glass Bowl:

1. Who plays quarterback? Three candidates will be given first-team work in the opening week: junior Phllip Ely, a transfer from Alabama; sophomore Logan Woodside, who was impressive in sparse action last season; and Michael Julian, a tall, versatile redshirt freshman from South Carolina. Ely, likely the most polished of the three, looks to be the early favorite, though Toledo coach Matt Campbell said all three players will have their chance to take the first-team job.

Eighteen offensive and defensive starters return for a Toledo team that thinks it can win this season, so making the right decision on a quarterback will be imperative. Campbell said there isn't a set date to name a starter, though he expects to re-evaluate after this week.

“I think it's something we've looked forward to because we feel we have three candidates that are three young men we feel really good about going into fall camp,” Campbell said. “We've really given those guys the opportunity to take the summer, put this team into their hands, and let's see what happens in the early part of fall camp.”

2. Is the pass defense ready? In a league as pass-happy as the MAC is, a team's fourth cornerback can be the difference between playing in the MAC championship game and watching it. Senior Cheatham Norrils, a St. John's Jesuit graduate, has been reliable for the Rockets, but the defensive backfield will need significant help from a handful of relatively inexperienced players.

“It can't be just four. It's got to be six, seven, eight guys that can go back there and play for us,” Campbell said.

3. Skill-position questions. UT has to replace its top quarterback, top running back, and top wide receiver from a season ago, and many young players will receive looks for playing time. Further, the Rockets don’t yet know who will return kicks and punts, an overlooked yet nonetheless critical portion of the game.

Alonzo Russell caught 59 passes a season ago at receiver and figures to be the clear No. 1 at receiver. Ditto for Kareem Hunt at running back, who ran for 866 yards. Beyond those two, the weapons and the person who will get them the ball are undecided.

4. Timing. UT struggled in key situations in 2013, particularly on defense. The Rockets were ranked 106th in the country in both third-down and fourth-down defense, and they were the worst team in the MAC when it came to red-zone defense.

“I think we're a lot closer than we were a year ago. I would say that,” Campbell said. “We had to grow up. One of the things I think we appreciate is it's a much more veteran football team than it was last year.”

5. The schedule. Toledo has two three-game stretches that will shape the season. The opening three games can darken or enliven UT's year: The opener against New Hampshire is no gimmie — the Wildcats went to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs a season ago — and games against Missouri and Cincinnati immediately follow. In the back half of the schedule, the Rockets have back-to-back-to-back November games against Kent State, Northern Illinois, and Bowling Green.

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at: npiotrowicz@theblade.com419-724-6160, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz.

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Tag(s): College  Toledo