University of Toledo player Michael Roberts (80) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass during last year's rivalry game with BGSU. Replacing Roberts and his 16 touchdown catches will be a focus of fall camp. BLADE PHOTO
Last year, University of Toledo tight end Michael Roberts emerged in the fall as a go-to weapon for quarterback Logan Woodside after seeing limited time on the field his previous three seasons.
Forty-five catches, 533 yards and 16 receiving touchdowns later, Roberts saw himself selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
So who is UT’s next Michael Roberts? As fall camp begins this week, Rockets coach Jason Candle is eager to find out.
“I think there are guys on our team that could be that, not even necessarily at that position,” Candle said. “That’s the fun of coaching. You always know and hope that there are people when you have a good program that have done the work necessary to let their talents surface and give themselves a chance to maybe validate what this really great high school film looked like or maybe validate the projections and predictions we may have for a specific person. That’s the fun of it and I’m sure somebody will open some eyes this fall.”
This year’s Toledo team boasts a mix of returning starters, players ready to step into starring roles, and youth looking for an opportunity.
At the forefront of the returning starters are Woodside and senior wide receiver Cody Thompson. The dynamic duo returns from a record-breaking season which saw Woodside throw for 4,129 yards and an NCAA-best 45 touchdowns. Thompson caught 64 passes for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns.
So after building such a strong connection last year, how do they regain that chemistry this season?
“We made a couple plays today, so I think we picked up right where we left off,” Thompson said after the first practice of the season. “It’s something that you have to build. You don’t just step on the field and do it. It’s something you have to work for and put a lot of hours in. A lot of our receivers and us have great chemistry.”
After such a dynamic offensive season last year, Thompson said they are focused on staying within themselves this season and not expecting too much.
“We just have to be ourselves, and not try to be something or somebody we are not,” Thompson said. “We just need to stick to what we have been doing and stick to the game plan the coaches give us and execute to the best of our potential.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Toledo lost key contributors from last season, including Treyvon Hester (a seventh round NFL Draft pick), John Stepec, and DeJuan Rogers.
However, seniors like linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley, defensive tackle Marquise Moore, and cornerback Trevon Mathis are looking to step into larger roles this season.
“To be a successful defense, I feel like you have to come out even before the first snap with the mind-set of not getting dominated by the guy in front of you,” Woodley said. “You have to do your job and stick with the fundamentals, because the fundamentals early, like now in camp, it comes over into the late months like November and December. That’s where fundamentals are the most important thing. We just have to stay on top of that every day.”
With a team that returns 15 starters from last season there are starting positions on the roster that need to be filled. With a 23-person freshman class that was rated as the best in the Mid-American Conference, there are plenty of players who can improve their standing in August.
For Candle and the coaching staff, August practices are an opportunity to evaluate talent and find out who is ready for the limelight in the upcoming season.
“I think that’s one of the benefits of splitting the squad up and practicing,” Candle said. “I think there are more reps and more times for people to be evaluated in live situations. Some of our good players are going to have to help us. We recruit well and you would like to think that you don’t have to count on freshmen to play. The reality of it is though, that is one fourth of our football team. Some of those guys will surface early in their career and some will surface late in their career. But we think there are some very good players in that class.”
This year, Toledo will have to fill the void left by not only Roberts, but also a third round pick in running back Kareem Hunt.
“Do you replace Kareem Hunt?” Candle asked. “Do you replace Michael Roberts? Let’s be honest, they are third and fourth round draft picks and that hasn’t happened here in a long time.
“I don’t necessarily know if anybody at those positions feel they have to be them. I’m not expecting that. If we have to get those yards or touches or catches collectively then so be it. If some guy can do that individually then that’s great too. We are who we are and we are going to continue to practice as we have been.”
Toledo players work during the first practice of the fall Monday at the Glass Bowl. BLADE/JETTA FRASER