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Season preview: Toledo looks for 1st MAC football title since 2004

08/27/2017, 1:25am EDT
By By BRIAN BUCKEY  BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Rockets bring back 15 starters, open season Thursday at Glass Bowl against Elon

Last year was a historic year for the University of Toledo football team in many ways.

Quarterback Logan Woodside set single-season school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. Tight end Michael Roberts shattered the single-season receiving touchdowns mark, receiver Cody Thompson set the single-season standard for receiving yards, and Kareem Hunt became the all-time leading rusher in program history.

In the offseason, the Rockets saw three players taken in the NFL draft (Hunt, Roberts, and defensive tackle Treyvon Hester), which were the first draft selections for UT since 2008. Eight Rockets players were invited to NFL camps.

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Woodside and Thompson lead a group of talented players returning as the Rockets bring back six offensive, seven defensive, and two special teams players from last season.

After getting 22 of 24 votes to win the Mid-American Conference’s West Division and 21 of 24 votes to win the conference title in the preseason media poll, there is a heightened level of expectation this season for UT.

“We lost eight guys to NFL camps last year and three guys to the NFL draft,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “It depends on how you look at it. We did lose a lot of talent, but we do have a good group of guys coming back. I think it’s about the team and not about individuals.”

No matter how high the expectations might be, UT has been in this situation several times in recent years, yet has not won a conference title since 2004. 

A promising season last year ended with losses to Western Michigan and Appalachian State.

“I think there are some expectations on the periphery of things, but in here, the reality of it is we did lose our last two football games,” Candle said. 

“I think this senior class still has a bitter taste in their mouth about that. Regardless of what expectations might be or what happened last year, there is still a really easy blueprint to this thing, and that is to find ways to motivate yourself each and every day to be the best you can be. If we can individually take a selfish approach to that, then collectively we will benefit from that and have a pretty good team.”

On offense, UT loses three starting linemen (Storm Norton, Mike Ebert, and Paul Perschon), as well as Hunt, Roberts, and slot receiver Corey Jones. Senior running back Terry Swanson will take over as the lead back, and senior Elijah Nkansah will anchor the offensive line.

“This year we have a veteran group, and we know what we have to do and what is at stake,” Swanson said. “We’re not going to take anything less than that goal that we want. Everybody has to stay focused, and we can’t ride that emotional wave. We can’t be too high or too low. We have to stay the course, stay focused, and believe. Everything will go from there.”

Defensively, UT will have to replace Hester, as well as end John Stepec and safety DeJuan Rogers. However, the Rockets have senior experience in linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley, cornerback Trevon Mathis, and defensive tackle Marquise Moore. Mixed in with the experience are young players ready to make an impact.

“Fortunately for us, we have good competition at a lot of positions defensively,” UT defensive coordinator Brian George said. 

“I think if you looked at us coming into the season, you would say, ‘Coach, you lost this guy, you lost this guy, you lost this guy.’ But what we’ve gained through recruiting and development and some hard work that some of the players put in is that we’ve gained some depth. Depth gives you the opportunity to push guys because they have to compete for their job every day.”

After a 9-4 season last year, UT is poised to take the next step and claim its first conference title in 13 years.

“We have had high expectations on our back every year since I’ve been here,” Woodley said. “It’s been the same outcome each time with us not winning the MAC championship. 

“We’ve just been working on getting these fundamentals down and getting the young guys ready so we can reach that goal. We have to get everything down before we can go out and think about that.”

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

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UT seniors, from left, Marquis Moore, Elijah Nkansah, and Terry Swanson are expected to take larger leadership roles this season. BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY

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