Defense was key part of Toledo's football title run

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    Toledo safety Josh Teachey celebrates breaking up a pass to Akron's Austin Wolf during the MAC Championship Game in 2017. Teachey is one of the veterans Toledo will lean on in defending its MAC crown.

    Blade/Lori King

  • In the second year in defensive coordinator Brian George’s system, the University of Toledo defense took a major step forward.

    As the Rockets made a Mid-American Conference title run, most people would point to the offense as the catalyst to the championship. But in conference play, the defense played a major role in snapping Toledo’s 13-year title drought.

    In eight conference games last season, the Toledo defense was tops in the conference in scoring defense at 20.6 points allowed per game and fourth in yards allowed per game at 355.0. Four of the first five MAC opponents failed to reach the 20-point mark, and the Rockets shut down Western Michigan to clinch the MAC West title then built a 38-7 lead vs. Akron in the conference title game.

    WATCH: Can the Rockets return to dominant form on defense?

    “I think once we hit the conference part of our season last season — we had a bye week between the end of our nonconference schedule and our conference schedule — we were able as coaches and players to evaluate where we were,” George said. “We didn’t make a lot of wholesale changes but it allowed us to see where our weaknesses were and attack those things, so when we reached the conference season we were prepared.

    “From that bye week forward, I felt like we improved on a daily basis for most of the rest of the season. When you do that, you have an opportunity to be successful.”

    Toledo returns six starters from last year’s defense including senior safety Josh Teachey, linebacker Tyler Taafe, and corner Ka’dar Hollman. Also returning are juniors Nate Childress (defensive tackle), Kahlil Robinson (safety), and DeDarallo Blue (Star).

    Despite the returning experience, the Rockets are integrating many newcomers into the defensive rotation.

    “We are looking good right now,” Teachey said. “We have a lot of new guys in the rotation. We’re just a work in progress as any team is right now. We are growing right now and getting all the pieces together. We should be solid. We’ve come out and practiced hard every day. Whether you are a new guy or an old guy, the work ethic is the same. At the end of the day we are coming together regardless of age.”

    Childress believes there is still room for growth as the chemistry is being built throughout the unit.

    “We’re not completely where we want to be yet,” Childress said. “You want to be at your max when the end of the season comes. I like our progression throughout camp and I think we’ve gotten way better as a whole and are making a lot of plays out there. The newcomers are stepping up and accepting their roles.”

    George, who is now in his third season as defensive coordinator, is happy with how the more experienced players have helped along some of the new contributors.

    “The veteran kids have continued to learn and understand the defensive philosophy and understand their part in it,” George said. “They have done a really good job throughout the spring, summer, and fall camp of helping the younger guys pick it up. We have quite a bit of new faces that are playing on defense. There are some really young, talented guys whose role is going to be a big part of our success this year. It’s always interesting as a coach to see where you are at heading into your first game.”

    While Toledo was solid defensively in conference play last season, the Rockets were sixth in the conference when looking at the overall body of work over 14 games. In those 14 games, Toledo allowed 26.2 points and 385.0 yards per game. That included 34 points allowed in a loss to Appalachian State in the Dollar General Bowl.

    Despite the team struggling some in the nonconference portion of the last season — including giving up 51 and 52 points back-to-back vs. Tulsa and Miami (Fla.) — Childress says there is a continuity building in the third year of George’s defense and the players have really bought into the execution of the scheme.

    “Coach George has been here a while now and everyone is really starting to understand his concepts of what we need to do on defense and running to the ball,” Childress said. “I feel like we are really building something special here with coach George’s defense and I like the way it’s going.”

    Contact Brian Buckey at bbuckey@theblade.com419-724-6110, or on Twitter @BrianBuckey.