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Published: Thursday, 3/28/2013

Larkins sticks with defense

Competition opens up with starting safeties gone

Jordan Haden is one of four Rockets vying for a starting spot at safety. The junior, who played special teams last season, has been rotating with the first team. Jordan Haden is one of four Rockets vying for a starting spot at safety. The junior, who played special teams last season, has been rotating with the first team.

D.J. Larkins beat his deadline, and maybe even crushed it.

Matt Campbell, University of Toledo’s football coach, imposed a cutoff of six spring practices to decide whether to keep the former high school All-American on defense or end the experiment and reroute Larkins back to receiver.

Tuesday marked practice seven of 15. Amid a muddled competition at safety comes a sliver of clarity: Larkins isn’t going anywhere.

The redshirt freshman’s speed and skills have enabled him to toss his hat into a four-person battle his position coach expects to spill well into fall camp.

“The game just comes naturally to him,” safeties coach Bryce Saia said. “We think he’s one of the best athletes, slash best safeties, slash best football players on the team. We needed him.”

Gone are the tried-and-true duo of Jermaine Robinson and Mark Singer, senior captains who racked up 79 combined starts. Their presence eliminated opportunities for others, making the race to replace them as scary as it is exciting.

Pay no attention, Saia said, to the depth chart that shows free safety Larkins and strong safety Ross Madison on top. Sophomore Chaz Whitaker and junior Jordan Haden, both of whom played last year in special situations, are rotating with the first team. Saia insists he needs all 15 practices to create a hierarchy.

“I haven’t seen a bad practice from that group,” Campbell said.

Saia said the trade-off in losing Robinson and Singer’s experience is a faster back end more adept in pass coverage. Campbell believes the position is deeper than a year ago, when Madison was the only replacement for every down.

It seemed a matter of time before Larkins (5 feet, 11 inches and 200 pounds) found a home on defense. Receiver, the position he was recruited to play, is as cluttered as safety is thin. Larkins — a former three-star prospect — was not named to Parade Magazine’s All-American team at cornerback for nothing.

“He’s a really good listener and a good learner,” Madison said. “He’s catching on quickly.”

Campbell honored Madison as defensive player of the day in Friday’s scrimmage. Larkins impressed, too, recovering a fumble.

“I just come out and play hard every practice,” Larkins said. “Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.”

SCRIMMAGE NOTES: Defensive end Jayrone Elliott intercepted a pass in the scrimmage and returned it for a touchdown, and defensive tackle Orion Jones “looks in regular-season form,” Campbell said. ... Three of the four drives authored by freshman quarterback Logan Woodside resulted in points, including a field goal with the first team. ... Campbell said Dwight Macon, who is splitting time between quarterback and receiver, made a couple of nice catches.

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

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