by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Tim Beckman enters his third year as head coach at Toledo having already accomplished quite a bit. The Rockets were reeling from game-fixing scandals, NCAA sanctions and three straight losing seasons when he took the reins prior to the 2009 season, but things turned around in 2010. Toledo posted a 7-1 record in MAC play and garnered the Rockets’ first bowl bid since 2005.

Beckman has two quality options at quarterback, as soph Terrance Owens (1244 YP, 60%, 13 TDP, 5 int. in 2010) and jr. Austin Dantin (1254 YP, 66%, 7 TDP, 8 int. LY) battled to a standstill in spring and will continue to compete through training camp. Dantin won the job last year, but a season-ending injury opened the door for Owens, who made the most of his opportunity. Whichever QB wins the starting spot will be surrounded by some lethal weapons. Sr. RB Adonis Thomas earned 2nd-team all-MAC honors by gaining 1098 YR (6.3 ypc), good for second-best RB production in the conference. Thomas, who looked healthy and sharp in gaining 97 yds. & scoring twice in the final spring scrimmage, is backed up by fellow sr. Morgan Williams, who has a 5.4 ypc career mark and ran for 1010 yards as a frosh back in 2008. Soph Darius Reeves made a bid for playing time by rushing for 55 yards on just 10 carries in the spring game.

Junior WR Eric Page is the premier returning wideout in the conference, coming off a 99-catch season when he gained 1105 yds. receiving. and according to Beckman, “...is as important to this team as anybody on our roster.” A complimentary receiving threat appears on hand in the person of soph Bernard Reedy. Reedy emerged during spring as a viable second option and cemented his starting spot with an 8-catch, 143-yard performance in the spring dress rehearsal. The Toledo offensive line has three returning senior starters led by left tackle Mike VanDerMuelen, who was named to the all MAC squad a season ago. VanDerMuelen and right tackle John Morookian are in their fourth year starting together. “Not many teams can say they’ve had the same starters at the tackle spots for four consecutive years,” says Beckman.

The defense allowed 29 ppg, but that figure was the best mark for the Rocket stop unit since 2006, and the number was skewed by three poor efforts in losses to Arizona, Boise State and Northern Illinois in which Toledo yielded 163 total points. With nine starters returning, including preseason all-MAC MLB Dan Molls (143 tackles last season), have to expect continued improvement. Toledo d.c. Mike Ward returns 10 of the team’s top 11 tacklers from a year ago, and the defense was much more aggressive than in recent seasons, recording 29 sacks and forcing 34 opponent turnovers. The defensive takeaways fueled a major turnaround in the Rockets’ turnover ratio, which improved from -10 in 2009 to +11 last season. The defensive line is keyed by active DE T.J. Fatinikun, who will be asked to up his sack production from the 5 recorded in 2010. The run defense will miss graduated LB Archie McDonald, who was fifth in the country in tackles, and despite a marked improvement, the Rockets were just average stopping the run last season (ranked 36th, yielded 4.0 ypc). However, the defensive line is deep and considered a strong suit for Ward’s crew.

The Rocket secondary was mediocre at best, ranking 86th in pass defense, yielding 231 ypg in the air. The defensive backs were chopped up several times during the season, including allowing Arizona’s Nick Foles to complete 32 of 37 throws in last year’s opener. Have to expect some improvement in the pass defense, however, as four senior starters return, and eight returning defensive players intercepted passes a year ago. This is a strong secondary by MAC standards despite breakdowns a year ago, but injuries cost starting SS Jermaine Robinson and FS Mark Singer, who sat out spring with Achilles and shoulder problems, respectively. Fortunately for Toledo, the NCAA granted CB Desmond Marrow a sixth year of eligibility, and Singer is expected to recover fully and assume his starting position for the opener. Robinson’s situation probably won’t be clear until the end of camp.

Improvement in the kicking game is a necessity for Toledo this season, as the Rockets ranked a miserable 117th in net punting. Sr. PK Bill Claus is unlikely to retain his spot after converting just 4 of 7 attempts last season, as true frosh Jeremiah Detmer or RS frosh Clay Simpkins will both be given long looks. Eric Page is one of the most dangerous kick-off return men around, coming off a 2010 season when he averaged 31 yds. per KOR, good for third in the nation.

Summary: Beckman and his staff signed the top recruiting class in the MAC in each of the last two years, so the outlook is bright in Toledo. It will take time for Toledo to remove the stain on the program that resulted in three ex-players being convicted of point-shaving, but the transition is well underway. The Rockets covered three of their last four games at the venerable Glass Bowl in 2010, and Toledo is 31-16 vs. the number at home since 2002.

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