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Published: Thursday, 3/14/2013

Coaching staff stability to boost Rockets

UT needs more TDs though

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Matt Campbell will not be the nation's youngest coach this season. Matt Campbell will not be the nation's youngest coach this season.
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Where did all the captivating storylines go?

Rewind to a year ago and two upperclassmen were angling to be University of Toledo’s starting quarterback. Now a host of newbies will jostle to be the backup.

Matt Campbell, now long in the tooth at 33 years old, abdicated his throne as youngest coach in college football. The Rockets leader, who grew weary of such discussion, must be relieved to hand over the title to Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, born exactly 365 days after Campbell. The rest of us are saddened, knowing we could have squeezed more life from the story angle.

There will be no new assistants to introduce when spring practice commences today, no competitions to replace stars at running back or wide receiver, and no Zac Kerin or Greg Mancz. The All-Mid-American Conference offensive linemen are on the mend after undergoing surgery. These next 15 practices won’t be too dull, though. A cornerback, Kishon Wilcher, is switching to receiver. A receiver, Danny Larkins, is switching to safety. Two electrifying freshmen in 2012, linebacker Trent Voss and receiver Alonzo Russell, will finally make their debut in front of the media.

Here are five other topics worthy of inspection:

1. Who will back up Terrance Owens at quarterback? The competition will lack the attention of the one in recent years involving Owens and Austin Dantin, but it might be as important. The contenders have thrown a combined six passes in a college game, all from Dwight Macon, who may or may not still be an option after the spring. Three freshmen will challenge: redshirt Brian Blackburn and incoming talents Logan Woodside and Michael Julian. Woodside, inspired by the chance to crack the two-deep, graduated high school early and enrolled at UT.

“Our biggest thing coming out of the spring is, what happens when Owens is not in the game,” Campbell said.

2. Can utility man Macon find a home? The answer seemed to crystallize a year ago when Macon, stepping out from quarterback, exploded at receiver and was chosen No. 1 overall in the spring game draft. Such a tease. Battling an ankle injury in fall camp, he finished the season sixth on the team with 18 receptions and never crossed into the end zone. It’s back to square one, as Macon will split time evenly in the spring between the positions. The decision could come soon if one of the freshmen quarterbacks surpasses him on the depth chart.

3. Can the offense find ways to kick extra points in lieu of field goals? Two years ago this was a nonissue, as the Rockets ranked seventh nationally scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Last season? Different story. With an influx of new personnel and a new playcaller Toledo ranked 121st, cashing in just 44 percent of the time inside the 20-yard line. In four losses, the Rockets converted just 35 percent of their chances and were shut out all five times against Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

“We did a lot of research on that,” Campbell said. “I don’t think there was some magical solution we came up with other than maybe at times we tried to do too much down there.”

Campbell added red zone play calling is a skill a young offensive coordinator, such as Jason Candle, will “naturally grow in.”

4. What will the defensive line look like to start the season? Three starters are gone, as are three reinforcements. The staff has stocked the pantry the last two Februarys, and the development this spring of second-year guys Orion Jones, Chris Collins, and Phillip Martin will be key in shaping a unit that will be a concern until proven otherwise. One name to keep an eye on: Robert Zimmerman. The junior college import is large — 6-foot-3, 325 pounds — and comes with acclaim. Texas A&M wanted him at one point.

5. How important is continuity to a coaching staff? Everyone returns from Campbell’s first staff, a rarity in the transient non-BCS world. Candle should be more comfortable in his second go-through as offensive coordinator, and the same should be true of defensive coordinator Tom Matukewicz. Much like a young player, Toledo’s young coaches — average age in 2012: 34 — should grow with experience.

“I think everybody’s excited to have been settled in for a year and kind of know what our issues are, know what we do really well, and know what we need to work on to be better,” Campbell said. “We’re all heading in the same direction together. That’s really special to have.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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