Barry Church spent yesterday morning in uniform, getting his picture taken for a backdrop that will hang at Savage Hall for the renovation groundbreaking.
Later in the day, the sophomore from Pittsburgh was named to the All-Mid American Conference first team for the second time in his first two years playing safety for the University of Toledo.
For the next two seasons, Church will be the face of the Rockets' football team. In order to make those seasons successful, he needs some help on defense.
UT finished 5-7 for the second year in a row, and the main reason for the losing season was a defense that rarely made stops. The Rockets were in the bottom three in the Mid-American Conference in scoring defense, pass defense, rushing defense, sacks and red-zone defense. That's in a down year for the conference, which only had one team, Temple, rank in the top 50 nationally in total defense.
"There's some things we did well, and some things we really need a lot of work on," UT coach Tom Amstutz said yesterday. "Some of the reasons are obvious. The scoring offense, we're No. 2 in the league. Scoring defense we're 13th in the league. There's a big difference there."
Several injuries in the season opener against Purdue resulted in the defense giving up 52, 52 and 45 points in the first three games, all losses. The secondary looked lost, giving up 16 receiving touchdowns in the Rockets' first five games. Things settled down a little bit in MAC play and the Rockets made a mid-season surge to get back to 5-5.
But a lack of a pass rush was a prominent reason for road losses at Ball State and Bowling Green, where accurate quarterbacks had loads of time to throw. UT was last in the MAC with nine sacks, and the next lowest-ranked team, Eastern Michigan, had 17.
The players felt they progressively got better as they adjusted to the 4-2-5 defensive set. Ultimately, though, they weren't able to execute consistently.
"I think it's disappointing because we didn't get our goals that we set," Church said. "We didn't get an improvement from last year's record."
The coaching staff is on the road this week to try to fix that. Sunday was the first day of a three-week recruiting window where coaches can have personal contact with players. Amstutz had two home visits over the weekend and is traveling again today.
"We need to bring in a good quantity of defensive players," Amstutz said. "Corners, safeties, a couple rush defensive ends, linebackers, all positions."
There are no junior-college players currently on UT's roster, but that could change, Amstutz said.
"It has to be a guy that I think will mesh in with our team quickly," Amstutz said. "We're looking at a couple for some instant help."
The Rockets likely will have some experienced players back on defense who weren't in the mix this year. Seniors Sean Williamson and Tyrrell Herbert are applying for medical redshirts to gain an extra year. Archie Donald (academics) and Desmond Marrow (injury) should return. Nigel Morris missed the season with an injury but is not expected to return.
"I'm confident we will improve," Amstutz said. "I focus on what I can control and work on that. I can't control that those guys were out. What I can control is making sure we have enough depth if we have losses next year that things will go right, and to make sure the scheme we have matches the personnel."
The defense definitely will have more experience next year after a season where freshmen got starts at four different spots on defense.
"To have juniors and seniors - I'm really looking forward to that," Church said. "We didn't have a lot of experienced players out there. I want us to be one cohesive unit out there on defense."
On offense, things look bright. In backup time this season, DaJuane Collins and Gordon Warner looked like they would be ready to replace Jalen Parmele at running back when the time came.
Replacing John Greco at left tackle will be a process. Amstutz expects Jan Gewont to be the leading candidate there after he missed most of this season with a knee injury. Amstutz hopes to move Jared DeWalt to left guard to replace David Perkins, and have Mike VanDerMeulen and Chris Meenan compete for the other tackle spot.
Amstutz said Aaron Opelt will be the No. 1 quarterback in spring practice. Opelt won the job in preseason camp and improved as the season went on, finishing with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions before injuring his foot against Ball State, causing him to sit out against Bowling Green.
"When we go into spring ball, right now we're not talking about who's going to rotate in," Amstutz said. "He showed on his healthy days that he was the guy that we wanted to lead the team. When we had that spurt, the
offense looked right with him in there. I felt like back in the days when Bruce Gradkowski was the quarterback. I felt like, this
offense is now being run."
All-MAC receivers Nick Moore and Stephen Williams also will be back, as well as tight end John Allen. But even with the offense's high-quality play this year, it wasn't enough. Amstutz is making no excuses, only ultimatums.
"We've got to get better," Amstutz said. "We've got to stop them on defense. We've got to give ourselves a chance. And we will."
NOTE: Two players have been invited to all-star bowls. Greco will play in the East-West Shrine Bowl in Houston on Jan. 19 and punter Brett Kern will play in the Hula Bowl on Jan. 12 in
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