The playbook is a sacred manuscript for college football teams. It holds the keys to success, all the avenues to good fortune.
When the University of Toledo named Bruce Gradkowski its starting quarterback to open the 2003 season, the Rocket coaching staff had to decide just how much of the holy text the sophomore from Pittsburgh would see, and when.
In the opener at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Toledo kept things fairly simple when gauged by its offensive standard of recent years. The Rockets passed 34 times, but it was mostly quick-hitters and not the deep stuff. They protected Gradkowski, and junior backup Cedric Stevens, with more conservative use of the playbook, since neither had started a college game nor played extensively.
Toledo coach Tom Amstutz said restricting the number and type of offensive plays is all part of the planned maturation path for UT's quarterbacks. Gradkowski gets his second start on Saturday in Toledo's home-opener against Liberty.
“We'll see the playbook open up week after week, because you can only put so many things on a young quarterback,” Amstutz said. “As we move on and our quarterbacks develop a better understanding of the defenses we are going to face, I think their confidence level will improve and our offensive production will improve.”
The Rockets had just 94 rushing yards against UNLV, and only 239 yards of total offense. Last season Toledo averaged 214 rushing yards and 472 yards of offense per game, and scored more than 35 points per game with senior Brian Jones at quarterback.
Jones finished the season as the most efficient passer in the country, completing more than 70 percent of his throws. Amstutz recalled that Jones had an awfully rough first start, however, as he got roughed up in a 56-21 loss to Bowling Green in the 2001 season.
“We have to be careful to not expect everything from a young quarterback in his first real taste of a game situation,” Amstutz said. “I think Bruce played pretty well and he's off to a good start. I think about Brian Jones' first start a couple of years ago at Bowling Green, and he wasn't nearly as successful. We'll be patient, and I think we'll see great improvement in the next couple of weeks.”
Amstutz said Gradkowski faced a difficult set of circumstances in his first college start, and that his performance has to be graded with that in mind. The Rockets drove 80 yards in seven plays for the game's first touchdown on their opening possession, with Gradkowski over center.
“That was his first college start, in an ESPN televised game, against a talented defense with outstanding athletes, and against a tough defensive scheme,” Amstutz said. “Consider also that we had no film to train him on since they had switched defenses.
“That first series was just what I was hoping he would do - move the ball down the field, a nice successful drive with a good mix, and we scored. I'm looking for more of that.”
Gradkowski, a 6-2, 204-pounder, completed 14 of 27 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
Amstutz also put the burden on Toledo's veteran offensive line, its wide receivers and running backs. He said they all play a big role in Gradkowski's growth curve.
“While he is developing, I want to make sure that we have other players who take over the load. We needed more of that in the first game. We need everybody on that offense to rally up and maybe do more than they were asked to do last year, until we get things rolling with Bruce's confidence and get our offense on track.”
Gradkowski said he expects everything to feel more comfortable when he takes the first snap against Liberty.
“I learned so much in that first game, but it is good to get it out of the way,” he said. “You have to resist the urge to try and do too much too soon. We have a great offensive plan, and the quarterback is in the center of everything we do. It is a lot of responsibility, but it's exciting to think about the future.”
Amstutz said the supporting cast did not do everything it could in the UNLV game to make things easier on Gradkowski and Stevens, who completed 3 of 7 passes for 21 yards against the Rebels.
“We have to make sure the rest of the guys are playing up to their ability . We had some missed assignments, some dropped balls, some plays where the holes weren't opened.”
He didn't mention the kicking game, but placekicker Jason Robbins missed his only extra-point kick, and a field goal was blocked.
Amstutz said he expects Gradkowski to show incremental improvement and develop into a quarterback who is capable and confident in his ability to run every phase of Toledo's spread offense.
“As the season goes on, I think we'll see him take over and have more and more confidence. He's a winner, he's a competitor, and he can run and throw. I just feel really good about him being a sophomore and being where he is today.”