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Defense key to Toledo football taking MAC crown

08/05/2017, 12:39am EDT

Rockets know they need more stops, turnovers

Rockets middle linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley, center left, celebrates a key stop against Ohio at the Glass Bowl in 2016. BLADE/ANDY MORRISON

A lot has been made of the University of Toledo offense after what was a record-breaking year in many ways last season.

With senior quarterback Logan Woodside back to lead a unit filled with skill and depth, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rockets’ offense continue to soar. For Toledo to win its first Mid-American Conference title since 2004, however, it will likely need to see an improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

“There are some glaring things that need to be improved on,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “We have to stop the run on defense, and we have to do a better job of taking the ball away. Those are two major points of emphasis. I’d like to see that defense gel as a unit.

“We got decimated by some injuries late in the year on the defensive front. I feel like there are more bodies there, I know that as a fact. I don’t know if they are necessarily as talented. Can we be as good? I believe so, but there is a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of work to be done at a lot of positions as well.”

Last season Toledo ranked fourth in the MAC in scoring defense (25.7 points per game), sixth in total defense (396.5 yards per game), fifth in pass defense (220.8 yards per game), and seventh in rushing defense (175.8 yards per game).

Candle said the rush defense suffered late as Western Michigan churned out 249 rushing yards in the final MAC game, and Appalachian State gashed Toledo for 297 rushing yards in the Camellia Bowl.

And the defense struggled to take the ball away from opponents, with just six interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The 10 takeaways last season ranked last in the MAC.

Gone from last year’s defense are standouts in defensive lineman Treyvon Hester, defensive end John Stepec, and safety DeJuan Rogers.

Toledo does return seven starters from last season, though, including seniors Ja’Wuan Woodley, Trevon Mathis, and Marquise Moore.

The Rockets hope to be more physical as a unit and a more aggressive mentality.

“You have to come out even before the first snap with the mindset 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.”

As the starting middle linebacker, Woodley said he has always thought of himself as a leader on the defense.

“You are always in the middle, and everyone is looking at you for the call,” Woodley said. “You just have to have the mindset of being a leader. Anybody can be leader. I stress that to the young guys too. Just because you are a young guy, [that] doesn’t mean you can’t lead by example or lead in different ways.”

Mathis is the lone senior in what is a young, but talented secondary.

“We have a lot of young talent, with a lot of very hungry kids in the room,” Mathis said. “At any moment I’m comfortable and I trust that they can get in there and get the job done.”

Moore said the defensive front will benefit from having more bodies able to rotate in and out of the game. “We can be very good,” Moore said. “We have a lot of D-line players that can play. We are going to have much more depth and that is what we need.”

The seniors know that more is expected of the defense this season.

“We want to have that dog mentality and championship mindset,” Mathis said. “Stopping the run, stopping the pass, that’s the mentality we want to have this year.”

Contact Brian Buckey at bbuckey@theblade.com419-724-6110 or on Twitter @BrianBuckey.

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Toledo returns seven starters from last season, including middle linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley, as it seeks a Mid-American Conference championship. BLADE/JETTA FRASER

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