Earlier this week, my boss approved a travel request for me to visit the best group of college football receivers in the Midwest.
So I packed the cooler, gassed up the SUV, and punched the destination into the GPS.
Finding route to ... Glass Bowl.
Yes, with due respect to the usual suspects, it is true: the region’s most dangerous collection of pass-catching talent resides not in Columbus or Ann Arbor or South Bend but on Stadium Drive in Toledo.
Don’t just take my word for it, either.
Flip through the hot-off-the-presses preview magazines at the grocery store, and by the decree of Lindy’s, Athlon, and Phil Steele, the verdict is clear. All rate the Rockets’ receivers unit among the top 10 nationally, with Lindy’s putting them as high as third behind only West Virginia and Ole Miss. By comparison, the publication has Michigan No. 10 and does not rank the Buckeyes. (Full disclosure: Athlon has Toledo eighth, Ohio State ninth, and Michigan 22nd. Steele pegs OSU at No. 3, UT at No. 5, and UM at No. 21.)
It’s the kind of big-time respect rarely afforded a Group of Five program, and, frankly, the Toledo wideouts don’t believe their good press.
“I think we should be No. 1,” junior Diontae Johnson said.
We’re not going to argue.
Not if the criteria is polish and production over hype.
If ever there was an ideal time for the Rockets to break in a new quarterback, it is with this deeper-than-the-Mariana-Trench cast that helped elevate the last guy (Logan Woodside) from very good into a school great.
All of them are back, including Cody Thompson and the all-league Johnson & Johnson (Diontae and Jon’Vea) tandem, which makes Toledo the first program in NCAA history to return three players with 10 touchdown catches in a season.
Add in Danzel McKinley-Lewis and Desmond Phillips and Bowsher graduate Bryce Mitchell and ...
“From one to 10, these guys would be a good receiving corps in the Big Ten, the SEC, anywhere in the country,” wideouts coach Mike Bellamy said.
He would know. Bellamy starred on nationally ranked Illinois teams under John Mackovic in 1989 and 1990 and later coached at his alma mater and Mississippi State before coming to UT last year.
Nowhere has he been part of a group like this, led by the example of Thompson, an Academic All-American nominee with a 3.7 GPA who had a school-record 1,269 receiving yards in 2016. To watch the Rockets’ receivers work out on a sticky recent morning is to appreciate the standard of excellence.
“You see them being accountable to each other,” Bellamy said. “You see Diontae telling Jon’Vea, ‘Pick your knee up.’ You see Cody telling Diontae, ‘Rip your elbow out.’”
In that spirit, know who broke Thompson’s receiving record last season? Diontae Johnson. With Thompson missing most of the year with a broken leg, Johnson — a 5-foot-11 burner from outside Tampa — had 74 catches for 1,278 yards, raising the bar once more.
“I tell my peers all the time, I’ve had good guys at my last stops, but hands down this is the best receiving group I’ve ever had,” Bellamy said.
That’s a tribute to Toledo’s eye for talent but also its player development. For as much as recruiting is the lifeblood of a program — and, yes, star rankings matter — the Rockets’ receivers are more proof these ratings go only so far.
Thompson and the Johnson duo arrived on campus with as many total stars next to their name — five — as one big-time prospect at Ohio State or Michigan.
Heck, Thompson, a lightly heralded dual-threat quarterback from Huron, Ohio, had no stars and one offer.
What would have happened if he sent his tape to Ohio State?
“Probably wouldn’t have looked at it,” he said.
Thompson instead clocked in at Toledo, the developmental factory that has rolled out four NFL draft picks in the last two years, including reigning league rushing champ Kareem Hunt.
Bellamy likes to say a blue 45-pound weight at Michigan weighs the same as a gold 45-pound weight at Toledo, and you might say Thompson takes that to heart. The player Sports Illustrated named to its Freaks Team last year lifts nearly 400 pounds worth of those gold weights on the bench press and has become one of the country’s most explosive receivers.
At least on paper, the same all-everything wideouts Thompson once looked up to at Ohio State are now looking up at him and his Toledo teammates.
“A lot of guys come here with a chip on their shoulder,” Thompson said. “They might have been under-recruited, guys who thought they deserved another look. But Toledo is a great place and we all ended up here for a reason. We play well together, and it really works out in the end for all of us. We’ve built a great thing.”
And the nation has taken notice.
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