DETROIT -- When media members pegged the University of Toledo to win the Mid-American Conference West division, their beliefs likely were based on the program's recent string of success and the fact the Rockets return two quality quarterbacks and most of their coaching staff.
If UT is to reach those expectations, though, the players who rarely garner publicity in July -- linemen -- will be a primary reason. Three starting linemen on either side of the ball are gone from a nine-win team, making the development of their understudies paramount when fall practice begins on Aug. 3.
The inevitable changing of the guard up front did not blind side the coaching staff, said first-year coach Matt Campbell, who believes he has stocked his roster with quality individuals ready to assume greater roles. All six of the new presumed starters played significant snaps last year, be it because of injuries or because Campbell and former coach Tim Beckman were concerned about entering this season unprepared.
"It's a quarterback-driven conference, and I think everyone understands that," Campbell said Tuesday at MAC Media Day. "But I firmly believe if you're going to compete year in and year out, you have got to have great depth on your offensive and defensive lines."
Although guard Jeff Myers and tackles A.J. Lindeman and Josh Hendershot will make their first career starts Sept. 1 at Arizona, they are not untested. All of them logged many snaps in 2011, contributing to a unit that allowed just 10 sacks. Gone to the NFL are Mike VanDerMeulen and Phil Manley, as well as three-year starter John Morookian.
"I expect our offensive line to be great again," quarterback Austin Dantin said.
The average weight of the five starters, which includes returners Greg Mancz and Zac Kerin, is 294 pounds -- down three pounds from last year.
The defensive line returns one starter, end T.J. Fatinikun, who missed the final seven games with an elbow injury. Much like the offensive line, the next wave of players aren't set to undergo a baptism by fire. Tackle Danny Farr played in every game the last two seasons, totaling 15 tackles. Lining up next to him will be Elijah Jones, who played in all 13 games in 2011 and posted 23 tackles. Both tackles weigh 295 pounds. At end opposite Fatinikun is Christian Smith, who started 10 games the last two years.
Not even the backups are unproven. Ben Pike, who is shifting from tackle to his natural position at end, had five sacks in 2011. End Jayrone Elliott had 31 tackles, logging snaps in every game. Tackle Phil Lewis recorded three tackles in the Military Bowl.
With a dearth of big and talented prospects nationally, developing depth on the lines is difficult in a lower-tier conference, Campbell admits. But he is confident his staff has done that.
"We've really worked hard to develop that depth and to make sure each year in recruiting we're putting a focal point on replacing two and three years ahead," he said.
OWENS AND PADRES: Quarterback Terrance Owens hopes after two more seasons in college he'll transition to the NFL. If that plan doesn't come to fruition, he'll try his hand -- actually, his arm -- in baseball. Owens initially planned to turn down an offer from the San Diego Padres after the organization selected him in the 40th -- and final round -- of the Major League Baseball draft. He reconsidered and agreed to a deal after learning he can wait until after his football career is over to join the organization.
"My goal is to go to the NFL, but if anything was to go wrong with that I'd still have the opportunity to do something with sports," he said.
Owens, a left hander who was drafted to be a pitcher, hasn't played baseball since his freshman year at Cleveland Glenville.
NEW HELMET: UT unveiled a new helmet Tuesday, which is receiving mixed reviews from fans. A dark blue model -- bordering on black -- features the Rockets logo along the side. Some supporters are praising its matte look. Others are unhappy over the absence of the word "Toledo."
SHORT YARDS: Some injuries suffered in the spring are lingering. Reserve cornerbacks Jordan Haden and Kishon Wilcher should be ready to go for the season opener after sitting out the initial days of fall practice, while end Keenen Gibbs could miss up to a month after injuring his ACL in the spring game. ... Receiver Julian Bellinger has left the team, Campbell said, to seek more playing time elsewhere. The senior from Lithonia, Ga., caught eight passes in three seasons. He was the team's fastest player -- running a 4.38 40-yard dash -- according to the media guide. ... Dantin has been impressed by freshman running back Damion Jones-Moore, as well as receiver Alonzo Russell, who signed with UT in 2011 but delayed his enrollment.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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