Like most successful college football programs, the University of Toledo doesn't often face major rebuilding.
The 2005 Rockets have 16 returning starters from a Mid-American Conference championship team, so coach Tom Amstutz has only assorted holes to plug.
Amstutz and his staff began that process yesterday as UT held its first practice of summer camp.
"We have a good core group back from a championship team and they understand what it takes to win," Amstutz said. "Those guys have the guts to lead and they set the bar on how everybody else works. When you have that, you have a program with continuity."
The Rockets are 46-16 since the start of the 2000 season, the 12th-best record among Division I-A programs during that span. They are 36-15 with three MAC West titles in four years under Amstutz.
UT's coach presided over an unusually long practice - three hours under a hot sun - yesterday and got his first look at the candidates to fill those few holes.
"It's a good teaching day, a fundamentals day, and an evaluation day," Amstutz said. "And there's a lot to evaluate. We have eight defensive starters back, but we have a new system, so we're looking for the guys with the athletic ability to help out there. We're sorting personnel, getting to know the freshmen, and figuring out where players can best fit in the program."
Amstutz was most focused on wide receivers, a couple offensive line slots, and defensive ends.
The Rockets have to replace their all-time receiving leader, Lance Moore, and three other departed seniors. Returnee Steve Odom is a known factor, but inexperienced players like converted quarterback Trumaine Smith, Pete Lepley, Andrew Hawkins, Nick Moore (Lance's brother) are among those with chances to win starting jobs.
"There are young guys with a lot of talent, but we have to determine who the playmakers are," Amstutz said. "We're watching to see who gets the best feel of the quarterback and who runs the most precise routes."
Juniors Jerry Aguwa and Greg Luna are fighting for the right tackle slot - returnee John Greco was moved to the left side to replace four-time All-MAC standout Nick Kaczur - and it appears the center's job is junior Hassan Adebesin's to win or lose.
"The good news is that Luna and Aguwa are both very capable and the competition is going to make each of them better," Amstutz said. "Hassan was a [high school] state heavyweight wrestling champion and he is tough and strong and has great balance. I feel good about those three and we'll see who else comes to the front."
New defensive coordinator Tim Rose is changing the Rockets from a 4-4 defense to a 3-4 alignment, meaning some untested players will have to step up big time at defensive end.
Alfred Martin started eight games last year as a freshman, but will undergo surgery in the next several days for "some minor knee repair," according to Amstutz.
J.P. Bekasiak, Sean Williamson, Bernard Faithful and Nick Lawrence are all candidates for the two defensive end slots. Williamson and Faithful have been spot starters in the past.
"They're all showing good progress in our new defense," Amstutz said.
The UT staff might also be facing the need to identify a backup to quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Marques Council, who filled that role last season, was not at practice yesterday and Amstutz said he was tending to some academic matters.
Asked if he expected Council to be on the team this season, Amstutz said: "That's yet to be determined, but I sure hope so."
NOTES: Andrew Clarke, a first team All-MAC tight end in 2003 who missed all of last season with a hip injury, has been ruled medically able to play, Amstutz said, but will be brought back slowly. "I'm confident he will see some action this season," Amstutz said. Clarke has career marks of 81 catches and 18 touchdowns The Rockets will hold almost all preseason camp practices on the grass intramural fields off Oakwood Avenue. They'll move into the Glass Bowl about one week before the Sept. 1 opener against Western Illinois UT's players were in shirts and shorts yesterday. They won't don pads and start hitting until Monday.
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