For the first time in three years, Toledo begins its season with no questions at quarterback. Bruce Gradkowski returns after a splendid sophomore season in which he completed over 70 percent of his passes for 3,210 yards and 29 touchdowns. His top target, Lance Moore, returns after leading the nation with 8.6 receptions per game. The Rockets welcome back six other starters from an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game.
The key to the season, however, could be the play on the other side of the ball. Toledo returns a talented group of linebackers and defensive backs, but there are some concerns on the line.
OffenseGradkowski has Rocket fans excited after he burst onto the scene as a sophomore and set school records in completion percentage (71.2) and touchdown passes (29) last season.
"We have high expectations for Bruce this year and the playbook will certainly get bigger for him," coach Tom Amstutz said.
Trinity Dawson was a second-team All-MAC tailback in 2003 after rushing for 999 yards as a sophomore. Reserve Quinton Broussard averaged 5.2 yards per carry in limited duty last fall. He will pushed by a trio of talented freshmen tailbacks -- Lance Johnson, Richard Davis and Jalen Parmele.
Dawson & Co. will be running behind a very large and athletic offensive line that allowed just nine sacks last season. Left tackle Nick Kaczur is a three-time All-MAC pick who is on the '04 Lombardi Award watch list. Center David Odenthal is the only other starter back, but three reserves return, and the coaching staff is excited about redshirt freshman John Greco and junior college transfer Greg Luna.
The receiving corps is without question the strength of this year's team. Moore, who caught 103 passes for 1,194 yards, is being touted for the Biletnikoff Award. Steve Odom, the runner-up for the 2003 MAC Freshman of the Year, contributed 62 receptions in his rookie campaign. And there is plenty of depth behind Moore and Odom. Andrew Clarke is a returning all-conference performer at tight end.
DefenseToledo graduated all four starters on the defensive line, along with two key reserves. The Rockets will be looking at Andre Bouldin, J.P. Bekasiak, Tyree Pollard and Patrick Clark to develop immediately at defensive tackle. True freshmen will compete for playing time right away, as well. There is some experience at defensive end with Jerome Walker, Phil Alexander, Melvin Butler and Don Gaines.
Three starters and eight lettermen return to the Rockets' four-linebacker set. Anthony Jordan (inside) and Keon Jackson (outside) have all-conference abilities. Jordan tied for fourth in the MAC last year with 138 total tackles.
Patrick Body returns at free safety, and according to Amstutz, "There is no reason why he can't be the best safety in the league; he has all of the tools."
Antonio Malone returns at one cornerback after breaking his collarbone late last season. Bo Martin, Nigel Morris, James Monds and Indiana transfer Steven Gunter provide UT with depth.
SpecialistsMoore also starred on special teams and helped UT rank third in the nation last year in punt return average. Jason Robbins is back as the placekicker, but he made just 3-of-7 field goal attempts. Jason Cox and freshman Brett Kern will battle for the open punter position.
Final AnalysisScoring points should not be a problem for Toledo. The offense returns eight starters and features stars on each unit -- Gradkowski at quarterback, Dawson at tailback, Moore at receiver and Kaczur on the line. There are, however, legitimate concerns on the other side of the ball, where Toledo must improve after ranking 72nd nationally in total defense by allowing 388.3 yards per game. If the defense is merely adequate, the Rockets, on the strength of their powerful offense, should be headed to a bowl game for the third time in the past four seasons.