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Published: Saturday, 10/13/2012

Linemen driving force for Toledo Rockets offense

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

With half the gridiron season in the books, the University of Toledo football team is sitting pretty at 5-1 atop the West division of the Mid-American Conference.

Heading into a match up today at winless Eastern Michigan, the Rockets have calmed several concerns from the preseason and look like a more complete team than most predicted. The first half of the year was dotted by superlative individual efforts, some surprises — mostly positive — and a string of five consecutive wins. A recap:

PLEASANT SURPRISE: Although the prevailing feeling was the offense would suffer with the departures of three multiyear starters on the line, the coaches were never concerned. Their confidence was justified. Though lacking the experience and sheer dominance displayed by last year’s group, a reworked unit has been adequate on its worst days, and impressive on its best. The best news: They seem to be getting better each week. Spearheading 200- and 100-yard performances the last two games by back David Fluellen, the line has become an asset rather than a group that the Rockets must win in spite of. Center Zac Kerin and right guard Greg Mancz, the lone holdovers from 2011, should collect postseason MAC accolades.

ANOTHER SURPRISE: Special teams play has made strides in nearly every area, a reflection of an emphasis in the offseason to fortify some porous units. Jeremiah Detmer has made multiple field goals in four games and leads the MAC with 16 touchbacks. Absent has been crippling returns by the opposition, a departure from last year when, for instance, Northern Illinois scored twice on kickoff returns in the first five minutes. Returner Bernard Reedy has been a solid replacement for Eric Page but needs to be more conscious of securing the ball. He has fumbled three times, retaining possession after every misstep.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS: Dwight Macon, the star of the spring and the No. 1 overall pick in the team draft, has yet to see his efforts materialize when it counts. Hindered by a leg injury in the preseason, he has yet to start a game or score a touchdown. Fifth on the team with 12 catches, Macon trails two running backs. His preparation and focus is not at issue, said head coach Matt Campbell, who is anticipating a fruitful second half of the season. Until that happens, one must wonder whether moving the sophomore from quarterback was the right decision for the future of the program given that he has not produced much in his new role.

ON SECOND THOUGHT: It is reasonable to think the Rockets would be unbeaten had Terrance Owens not been relegated to the bench in the second half and overtime of the loss at Arizona. Owens, whose big-time throws and minimal mistakes have blown up the notion of a quarterback battle, was more effective than Austin Dantin that night but was not on the field at the most critical points. The "What if?" element of that decision has to be eating at the coaches at least a little. A 5-1 record is great but not perfect.

MVP: Owens has been stout, Kerin buoys a retooled line, and Jermaine Robinson has the tools NFL teams look for. None of them, however, has been as consistent as Dan Molls. Not exceptionally fast or menacing, the senior linebacker and the nation’s leading tackler is seldom out of position. He makes virtually every play, from the monstrous hit in the flat, to the routine stop up the middle. You always know what you’re getting from Molls, both in games and in practice. His impact will be missed on many levels after this year.

LOOKING AHEAD: The Nov. 14 matchup at Northern Illinois is, once again, shaping up to be the so-called MAC West title game. Although the Rockets are flawed and have not shown an ability to bury inferior opponents, they very well could be the best team in the MAC through half of a season.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6510 or Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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