Tom Amstutz was sending his University of Toledo football players from a meeting to the team dinner last Friday night at their hotel in Illinois.
I dismissed them by classes and I stood there counting and it surprised me, Amstutz said. There were seven seniors, 22 juniors, 18 sophomores and 18 freshmen. I knew we were young, but that count still surprised me.
So, 24 hours later, after the Rockets had been laced by Northern Illinois just seven days after stunning Michigan, Amstutz had it figured out.
We showed our talent against Michigan, he said. We showed our immaturity against Northern Illinois. We had a huge victory, we were patted on the backs for a week and we didn t re-focus. I m disappointed I didn t do a better job as a coach and that the players didn t do a better job in that regard. But the maturity level played a role in it.
It s one thing to figure it out; it s another to do something about it.
The Rockets host MAC kingpin Central Michigan on Saturday, and while a team can dress more players at home than it can with a travel roster, the class breakdown of those who contribute the most for Toledo won t appreciably change.
UT has 10 seniors on its 2008 roster, seven of whom traveled to Northern Illinois and only four of whom were truly counted on to contribute. One of the latter sat out the first quarter for disciplinary reasons.
Amstutz is typical of any coach who uses a youthful roster as a factual explanation for tough times, if not as an excuse. He sounds like a guy who s stuck playing the cards he has been dealt. Fact is, he and his staff have ample opportunity to stack the deck. It is all about recruiting and retention.
Toledo is one of six Division I-A programs with 11 or fewer seniors on its roster. Of the other five, one coaching staff is in its third year and four are in their second seasons. Conversely, UT is one of seven programs to have played 14 or more true freshmen in 08. Five of them have head coaches in either their first or second seasons on the job. Amstutz is in his eighth year as Toledo s head coach.
The seed of the Rockets current discontent was sown long ago. UT is 12-19 since the start of the 2006 season and, not coincidentally, it was two years before then that all of this started.
Toledo s 2004 recruiting class included 20 incoming freshmen. Four exhausted their eligibility in 2007, and five are fifth-year seniors on the current roster. The 05 class had 22 true freshmen. Two are listed as seniors, and nine are juniors or sophomores (one player has used both a redshirt year and a medical redshirt year) on the current roster.
The retention rate from those two classes, 20 out of 42, is poor to begin with. That so many red-shirt seasons were forcibly eliminated is another factor that has left the Rockets with so few truly experienced players at the top of the lineup and such little quality depth from top to bottom.
(Depth, you ask? UT s best running back was injured during a double-overtime loss to Fresno State in which the Rockets scored seven touchdowns, bringing their total to 14 TDs in the first three games. DaJuane Collins, a fourth-year junior, has just 23 carries in the four games since, UT has been out-rushed 771-258, and the Rockets have scored two offensive touchdowns, one in the last 15 quarters. Any other questions? Pardon? How did UT beat Michigan without an offensive touchdown? Hmm. That s a good one.)
Where were we before we were so rudely interrupted? Oh, yes, the 20-of-42 retention rate. Career-ending injuries can be a factor, but so can character and academic issues. Some kids realize they made a mistake and transfer. In many cases, though, the missing players are names that just never panned out, rarely if ever played and eventually disappeared, which brings us back to effectively evaluating talent and recruiting.
Ironically, Central Michigan matches UT with just 10 seniors on its roster. The Chippewas, like UT, have played double-digit true freshmen (11) this season. Neither is unusual for a program that is on its third head coach in the last six years.
But the Chips are also 5-2 overall, 4-0 in the MAC, and are chasing a third straight league championship.
So, yes, numbers are facts.
But they re not excuses.