Two years later the Bearcats and the Rockets will reconvene at Paul Brown Stadium under weird circumstances. Its not just that the game is being played on Friday night either. I think we all know by know that weekday games happen, and that they are all vaguely to the benefit of the schools playing them. Afterall this is the life that we live now, the charmed days of setting dates and demanding home games without anything but money in return are dead. Not that they ever really existed, but they were still real to some guys. Kinda like wrestling, but I digress. The oddest thing about this game is the timing. Even though it is still just the second weekend in September this game will be the Rockets third contest and the Bearcats first.
That is something of a disadvantage, but it is a manageable one, the kind of disadvantage that it is entirely acceptable for a team to overcome. As a result of the wacky schedule that Bearcats practice schedule is condensed and expanded. They will start practicing a couple days later than most other schools in the country on August 10th, but they have the same number of practice hours that every other school gets for pre season, just in a slightly shorter amount of time.
When most coaching staffs break up their preseason stuff they usually do so by devoting the first part of camp to installing the schemes and generally working on fundamentals for a couple of weeks. After that point they begin gameprep for their opening opponent for those final two weeks. UC coaches will have the option to work on fundamentals for an additional week or two before starting the process of installing the game plan for the Toledo game, with the benefit of two games worth of current film. Which will be good, because Toledo is a pretty damn good football team, albeit one that is much changed from the last time most Bearcats saw them.
Terrence Owens, Bernard Reedy, David Fluellen, Jayrone Elliot, and Dan Molls were all huge parts of the 2012 team that are now departed. Thats the good news, the bad news is that a lot of those guys were gone last year, or on their way out. Matt Campbell is a young gun in the coaching business and probably not long for the Rockets.* Perhaps expectedly Campbell has recruited very well,** but he has also become pretty damn good at building the depth of his team by playing a lot of guys.
*we feel your pain Rockets fans, we really do
*Only that boat rowing son of a gun at Western is doing it better at the moment
Nothing illustrates that point better than the way Campbell utilized the running back position a year ago. He brought back Fluellen for his senior season, and the expectation was that he would get the lion's share of the carries, run for 1,500 yards and god knows how many touchdowns, picking up first team All-MAC honors and a shot at the NFL.
While the script played out as one would expect early in the year with Fluellen getting big carries early in the year. But he was hurt in the Bowling Green game and Kareem Hunt played brilliantly in his stead down the stretch. But even before that injury Hunt was carving out a place for himself in the rotation with strong games against WMU and Navy. When Fluellen got hurt Hunt took the opportunity and ran with it, racking up all but 77 of his 866 yards after the turn of October. Toledo has had a 1,000 yard rusher in six of the last seven years, and Hunt seems a good bet to make it seven of eight, particularly so because he is playing behind this line.
Toledo has nine of ten coming back from the 2013 two deep. This is a deep talented and nasty group who will be a real challenge for a Bearcats defensive line that is incredibly deep on the edges but starting over from scratch at tackle. The good news is that Zac Kerin, their best offensive linemen the last few years at Center is moving on. The bad news is that the likely new starter is also a senior who has played in 22 games. The Bearcats aren't likely to face many offensive lines in 2014 that are better than the Rockets, maybe Miami (FL) but thats it.
So the ground game is good, the passing game for Toledo will be a little more unsettled, though not on account of the receivers. Five of last years top seven most targeted receivers will be back, only Fluellen and Reedy are missing. They also have a veritable menagerie of fairly highly rated recruits who are ready to find a role. The best news of all is that Alonzo Russell is back again for a third season with a decent chance to put his name up there with Eric Page and Lance Moore among the best Rocket receivers in history. For a focal point receiver for your offense Russell is all you could ask for, big, physically dominant with surprising speed and the willingness to play the position with aggression. There is plenty of talent around him too with youngish guys like Rodney Adams and Alex Zmolick ready for a bigger role and steady old hands like Justin Olack and Dwight Macon. The question is who will throw the ball, and will they be competent when they do so?
Everyone is assuming that Phillip Ely will be the man behind center, but its not a sure thing. Logan Woodside played in place of an injured Terrence Owens last year and looked fine for a freshman. He is still in the competition but everyone is assuming that the Bama transfer Ely will get the gig. Regardless of who gets the job matching Owen's performance from last year is a manageable goal, but they might need more from the offense because the defense is still a question mark.
They bring plenty of people back from last years defense, but last years defense wasn't what you would call good. They were OK against the run, good at getting to the passer and disrupting offenses with negative plays. But it was very much an all or nothing existence. They blitzed to apply pressure and force negative plays in the guise of sacks or TFL's. Failing that they failed in general. They either brought the quarterback down in a pile of navy clad bodies or the opposing offense scored with a deep pass.
Is the style the problem or is the current player's inability to execute that style the problem? Either way after year two something had to change, and it did. Jon Heacock is the new defensive coordinator coming over from Purdue. The last time he coordinated a defense is was the Kent State crew that rode an almost comedic avalanche of turnovers to their first ranking in nearly 40 years.
Heacock has something to work with in Toledo. His defensive line will go at least 7 deep, he has a couple of studs to man the linebackers in his 4-2-5 defense and the secondary is better in terms of talent than they showed last year. I like DT Treyvon Hester, I also like Junior Sylvestre and Chase Murdock at linebacker. I sort of like their big and surly secondary led by Cheatham Norrils, I just have no idea how these parts fit together into a coherent defense.
With the sophistication of offenses these days it is imperative that that component parts of a defense fit together is some logical way. If a scheme is all about getting pressure with the front four then you have to have linemen who can fulfil that obligation, but you need your linebackers and safeties to have tremendous range to erase passing lines for that quarterback but also the stamina to stay in coverage for a second or two longer because there will be downs when the line can't put a QB under pressure. If you are a blitzing team pass rushing linebackers are a must, but you need corner who can lock up opposing receivers.
Last year Toledo had a commitment to bring pressure coupled with defensive backs who could not survive in one on one situations as a result the secondary came to resemble a smoldering ruin at the end of the season. Most of those guys are back and should be better in theory. But the approach needs to change as well, they need to put their defense in better spots in 2014.
Toledo is going to give the Bearcats a game when the season rolls around, of this I am tremendously confident. The simple fact that they will have two games under their belt makes me nervous. The fact that they will be coming off a home game against Missouri makes me nervous. The fact that they are so good up front on both sides of the ball makes me nervous.
This is a good Toledo team, the kind of team that could very well launch Matt Cambell onto his next job come December. But these Bearcats have a lot of potential. I think that this team is going to be the best UC team since 2009. As such they should be able to take care of business with the Rockets, even with a host of circumstances lined up against them. But weird things happen on Friday nights.