University of Toledo football coach Tom Amstutz yesterday named sophomore Bruce Gradkowski as his starting quarterback for the Rockets' opener at Nevada Las Vegas on Friday night at 8. Outside of that, the third-year head coach left the long-term rights to running his offense pretty much wide open, and gave notice that UNLV will have to prepare for two different Toledo quarterbacks.
Junior Cedric Stevens, locked in a head-to-head battle with Gradkowski for the starting job throughout spring practice and pre-season camp, will play against the Rebels, and play a lot, according to Amstutz.
“We'll start Bruce Gradkowski, but both he and Cedric will play,” Amstutz said. “There wasn't what I'd call a big difference in how they performed in camp. One day one of them was hotter and sharper, then the next day it was the other guy. They both came in with the goal of being the starter, and they're both very competitive - but this wasn't a big issue with us. We go out to play to win, and we're not going to spend a lot of time worrying about who will start or how much this guy or that guy will play.”
Stevens and Gradkowski have been auditioning for the right to replace Brian Jones, who as a senior last season led UT to a 9-5 record, a 7-1 mark in the MAC. In his only year as a starter, Jones helped the Rockets win a share of the MAC West Division title, and advance to the MAC Championship game and the Motor City Bowl.
Jones was adept and extremely efficient at running UT's spread offense. His 70.2 percent completion rate was the best in the nation, and he passed for 3,446 yards and rushed for 414 more on the season.
Gradkowski (6-2, 204) sat out 2001 as a redshirt, then played in 13 games last year, mostly as the holder on special teams. He had a celebrated prep career in Pittsburgh, passing for 30 touchdowns and 2,978 yards as a senior - the most passing yardage in the 87-year history of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, an association that covers about half of the state and where such greats as Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Terry Hanratty played.
“The competition between Cedric and I has been intense, with both of us knowing that every day we could either move ahead or fall behind, depending on how we performed,” Gradkowski said. “I just tried to focus on my job, and then let things fall into place.”
Gradkowski said despite the battle for the starter's job, he and Stevens remain good friends and each other's biggest supporter.
“For some people to think this competition to be the starter puts a damper on our relationship, that's just not true. We go out each day and do things to help each other get better. Nobody wants this team to do well more than Cedric and I do, and we're both willing to sacrifice any egos or personal goals for the good of the team.”
Stevens (6-4, 217) who came out of spring ball as the designated starter, appeared in four games for the Rockets last season, completing 9 of 14 passes for 112 yards. The year before, he played in the junior college ranks at Butler County CC in Kansas, where he passed for 1,266 yards and 14 touchdowns in his only season.
Amstutz said his decision to play both quarterbacks, and to script offensive sequences styled for each of them, will likely increase the preparations the Rebels must make for defending against UT.
“We have a couple of guys here who can both play the position for us, but they bring different elements to the table, different strengths,” he said. “As a former defensive coach I can tell you it is definitely tougher to prepare for two guys than it is for one. By planning to play them both, it gives us more options offensively.”
Amstutz said he expects to stick with the two-man rotation for the immediate future, but that developments in the UNLV game or on the practice field could change that scenario.
“What I know for sure at this point is that we have two good quarterbacks who can both play this game,” Amstutz said. “That is a good situation.”
UT RADIO SHOW: The UT football radio show with Amstutz has moved to the Fricker's downtown, on St. Clair between Washington and Monroe streets, adjacent to Fifth Third Field. The show, which airs on WSPD-AM (1370), debuts tomorrow from 6-7 p.m. and will air every Monday during the season, except on Labor Day weekend, when it will be Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 6.
The show is hosted by Mark Beier, in his ninth season as the voice of the Rockets, and former UT quarterback A.J. Sager, in his fourth as color analyst.